Why are Google so coy and evasive about age?

 

On 9th June, 2011, at their invitation I went in to Google’s London office in Victoria to meet with some new staffers who had an interest in online child protection. It was a “getting to know you” thing. Only one staffer turned up. Nonetheless everything was very amicable.

I raised a particular question. The new staffer said she did not know the answer there and then. No big deal. She was new after all. I said I would confirm the question in writing and told her what I thought the answer was. I bet a pint of Guinness I was correct.

I asked Google to confirm that every single product or service which they then offered to the world at large was only meant for persons over the age of 18. More than twelve months later I have still had no reply, and yes I did send several polite reminders.

The old Terms of Service

In the email which I sent on 10th June, 2011, I reproduced an extract from Google’s general Terms of Service. You can read them for yourself if you click here. Notice these Terms were adopted in April 2007. They were changed on 1st March, 2012, which was after I tried to start my conversation. I’ll come to the new Terms in a minute. For now let’s stick with the old ones.

At the relevant time Google’s terms read as follows:

2.3 You may not use the Services and may not accept the Terms if (a) you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with Google, or (b) you are a person barred from receiving the Services under the laws of the United States or other countries including the country in which you are resident or from which you use the Services.

There are special arrangements which can be made to use Google products within schools. I discuss these briefly below, but no equivalent or analogous permission exists for the use of anything outside a school environment.

So there you have it. Under the old terms of service to use, for example, Google Search or YouTube in most of the UK you had to be 18. In Scotland it might have been 16. Seemingly in Nebraska and Alabama 19 is the contractual age, in Mississippi it is 21 and in American Samoa it is 14. In Japan it is 20.

So why did I want confirmation from Google?

If it was all crystal clear why exactly did I need Google themselves to confirm it? That’s easy. Once or twice when I had told people how I read Google’s Terms they looked at me a little sideways, shook their heads in disbelief but, perhaps from a misplaced sense of politeness, without saying anything I could see what they were really thinking was

John’s definitely got this one wrong. He must have misread or misunderstood the position. A rule which says you have to be 18 to use YouTube and Search! That’s ridiculous. Kids everywhere use them all the time. It makes a mockery of the very idea of rules! It cannot be true.

Oh but it can. The enormity of the sheer, jaw-dropping impudence kind of takes your breath away. That’s why I wanted to have it on Google’s own virtual notepaper, so to speak, in order to eliminate any possible confusion or ambiguity. I could produce the email and end any and all doubt.

The new Terms of Service

In Google’s new Terms of Service, which came into effect on 1st March, 2012, the crisp and clear age-related statement of the previous version has disappeared. Now we have a riddle and a perseverance test. Here are the words

Our Services are very diverse, so sometimes additional terms or product requirements (including age requirements) may apply.

That’s it. The word age cannot be found anywhere else on that page. Neither is there anything which tells you where to find out about the age requirements to which Google themselves refer. I followed every hyperlink given in that section. Nothing. Or rather, after about eight or nine clicks I gave up. A couple of times I ended up back at the same Terms of Service where my journey had begun.

In desperation I decided to try to open up a Gmail account, giving my age as nine. This was the message I received:

In order to have a Google Account, you must meet certain age requirements. To learn more about online child safety, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website.

Brilliant. Someone at Google clearly has a cruel sense of humour.

On Google’s page called “Creating an account” as far as I could see the word “age” does not appear. Even if you click on the hyperlink which says it will tell you about “information you provide at sign in” all you discover is that Google will ask for your date of birth so they can

…..provide you with things like age-appropriate settings.

Google doth speak unto Google

I then had one of my all too infrequent brainwaves. I tried Google Search to see what I could find out about Google’s Terms. I entered “Google’s age requirements” into the box. The No. 1 slot was taken by an answer to the question “Why was my account disabled?” Within that was a further hyperlink which, finally, got me to the place I needed to be

Age requirements on Google Accounts

The following age requirements apply for owners of a Google Account (with the exception of accounts in Apps for Education domains):

  • Spain: 14 or older
  • South Korea: 14 or older
  • Netherlands: 16 or older
  • All other countries (including the US): 13 or older

Keep in mind that specific products may have additional age requirements. For example, financial products and business-to-business products like Checkout, AdSense, and AdWords require users to be 18+ to access. Also, mature content in places like YouTube requires a user to be logged in and be 18+

Interesting choice of words

There are (at least) three things about this statement which are noteworthy.

There is that reference to products which “may have additional age requirements”. Wouldn’t that be an ideal place to stick in a hyperlink to tell you what those products were and what the requirements were? On one page Google lists seven of its most popular products. If you click on “show all products” in the consumer section it lists 51. This is not an unmanageable number. I’m sure Google could do it.

Then there is a reference to places “like YouTube” where “mature content” might be found but, again, no listing of them.

And finally there is the acknowledgement that because parts of YouTube may contain “mature content” it will not only be necessary for you to be over 18 in order to view it, but you also have to be logged in to your account i.e. casual browsers cannot get access to “mature content” on YouTube. And indeed they can’t. I tried.

YouTube

When I wrote to Google last year the Terms of Service for YouTube were worded slightly differently from the general Google terms quoted above but they still had the bit in them about needing to be able to form a legally binding contract. Here is what they said

2.3 You may not use the Service and may not accept the Terms if (a) you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with YouTube, or (b) you are a person who is either barred or otherwise legally prohibited from receiving or using the Service under the laws of the country in which you are resident or from which you access or use the Service.

Exactly the same wording is still in place today on You Tube’s Terms of Service page. I assume that’s a mistake and that someone will correct it soon. It’s obvious elsewhere on the site it is meant to be 13 but it would be good to get that cleared up.

Why the change?

I would be interested to know what led Google to change its policy and therefore its wording in the way that it did?

My guess is the change from 18 to 13 was triggered by the launch of Google+, Google’s attempt to answer Facebook.

Google originally launched Google+ for people who were 18 year olds or above but later they relented. Facebook’s minimum age is 13 so Google must have figured they could not compete head to head with them if theirs was five years higher.  

Moreover if you are going to change the age requirement for Google+, and try to place it at the centre of your product range, it does not make sense for everything else in that range to be designated for 18 year olds. 18 was the common denominator before. Now it’s 13.

This marks an important moment and I am surprised there has not been more comment about it.

I am pretty sure this means that, for the first time ever, Google officially acknowledges that legal minors use their services. Specifically they are accepting that 13 year olds do.

If Google think they need a double-lock on showing “mature content” on YouTube why do they not extend the same reasoning to Google Search?

Google Search

In Google Search three safety settings are available

  • No filtering
  • Moderate filtering
  • Strict

Moderate filtering is on by default. This does not block access to sites like pornhub, probably the hardest of hard core porn sites on the legal web.

Thus, unlike on YouTube, on Google Search you can be a casual surfer, not logged in to anything, and by default you get access to pornhub. What is the justification for that? For 13 year olds?

True enough you can go into the settings and turn on “strict”. That is the only setting which keeps out the pornhubs of this world but in order to do that

  • you have to know about it or find out
  • you have to locate the right place on the site
  • you have to do it
  • you have to lock it in 

I have had people of Einstein levels of intelligence contact me to tell me how difficult they have found it to do bits or all of this.

If you click on the little spanner to customize Chrome there is nothing in Tools or Settings that speaks to the safe search options. That’s because Chrome and Search are, technically, two different things although I wonder how many people fully appreciate that?

Google doth not speak unto Google 

Normally you have to get into Search to be able to change the Search settings. This means you have to have a search result showing on your screen then the little wheel will be visible in the top right hand corner and you can switch to “strict”.

The only snag is you cannot lock “strict” in without first opening an account with Google. This means you cannot effectively control your children’s access to hard core porn unless you open an account with Google. There is something about that which doesn’t feel right.

A near monopoly provider of search requires you to surrender your personal data to them  in return for allowing you to maintain ongoing control over access to hard core pornography? Hmmmm. I will ruminate upon that.

To see if there was an easier way of resolving this I tried the same thing as before and typed “safe search” into Google Search. No. 1 slot was given over to Google’s “Good to Know” page which is excellent on many things but I had to click again, on to the “Family Safety Centre”, then “Google’s safety tools” before hitting the spot.

Call me old-fashioned but I think certain things, important things, should be more obvious, intuitive, easy to find and all round a great deal easier to implement. This is the major reason I favour stronger defaults. Nobody should have to jump through hoops to stop pornhub popping up on their child’s screen.

If there is now no contract what is there?

If 13 year old Google users are not engaging with Google on the basis of a contract, which obviously they can’t be because they cannot make contracts, on what basis are they engaging with Google Search, YouTube and the rest?

What duty of care does Google think it owes to 13 year olds? Crucially, exactly how has the site or the services Google provides changed since 18 was dropped and 13 became the new entry point? I cannot say I have noticed anything.

The position in schools

Incidentally, while trawling around on this topic I decided to take a look at how the Google thing works in schools. There is a special page which introduces the main points.

A Head ends up having to enter the school’s domain name. Just below it there is a hyperlink to the Terms of Service which apply in the UK. Looks like these constitute a legally binding contract between the school and Google.

Check out paragraph 8.1 where, it seems, Google is delegating to schools, or maybe I mean imposing  on them, obligations which it might otherwise have in relation to the COPPA legislation in the US. I wonder how many schools have checked out what their potential liability is under this clause?

You do not need an account with Google, so you do not need to surrender personally identifiable information to Google in order to use many of its services. This means no COPPA issues need necessarily arise simply by virtue of using a Google product or service. But if a child chose to open an account, say while they were sitting at their desk in a school in Huddersfield, I seriously doubt that Google would be relieved of any obligations under COPPA simply by virtue of 8.1. My guess also is an English school would have zero liability of any kind, but I would not swear to that.

Trying to speak to Google

Almost exactly a year after I first wrote to Google about this, to be precise on 4th June, 2012, I wrote again. I got a partial answer a day or so later about something to do with Google + I had asked about. I was told someone was “checking” on the rest. Again I sent a reminder. It went on 5th July. I have still had no confirmation from Google about the wider issue of age and how it interfaces with the services they provide. This is turning into a repeat of last year.

It cannot be that senior Google employees do not know the answers so why do they appear to be reluctant to confirm the position in writing? I am almost at a complete loss to come up with a plausible explanation.

PS Did you notice I never even referred to the question of how Google tries, or doesn’t, to verify the age of anyone who joins or uses any of its services including those supplying “mature content”?

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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