Evan Schuman: Google eyes the preteen set

No marketer wants to leave a potential market untapped, and Google hates to disappoint marketers

Kids say the darndest things -- and Google wants to know about and memorize each and every one of them. And not just what they say, but the sites they visit, the things they buy, the things they don't buy, the browsers they use and anything else it can suck up relating to the kids' computers, phones, networks and geolocation. Google just loves kids -- especially the part about how much retailers will pay for all of that information.

Google's move to start offering Gmail, YouTube and other accounts to children younger than 13 years old for the first time has huge implications for child privacy. This change in policy, detailed last week in The Wall Street Journal, precariously throws the search engine giant into territory controlled by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which is enforced (OK, to be accurate, we should say "is supposed to be enforced") by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). COPPA sharply restricts how companies can track -- and especially advertise to -- youngsters. But there is a loophole that e-commerce companies (and some solidly brick-and-mortar physical chains) have been salivating over, and Google is finally making its move.

First, though, let's see how Google is spinning this. Google points out -- correctly -- that a huge of number of the younger-than-13 set have used Google for many years, be it by using anonymous guest accounts, someone else's account or simply lying about their age and setting up their own accounts. Google is trying to sound pragmatic and responsible, saying that it can't protect kids when they enter through underhanded means, but by providing an acceptable and authorized way to get in, it can give those young shoppers the parental restrictions and age-appropriate content that COPPA was designed to deliver. Even if only 10% of that age group uses the new child accounts, the Google argument goes, at least that's more protection for kids than exists now. In other words, if we don't give these kids an option to use Google properly, we give them no choice but to use it improperly. (This argument presupposes that the alternative of kids simply not using Google at all is unimaginable. Sadly, at least for today, Google is probably right about that.)

That, however, is far from the full story. The laws are explicit that you can't market directly to anyone under 13. And although the law greenlights such marketing once the victim becomes a teenager at 13, parental concerns exist until they are 18, making such moves even to a 16-year-old risky, since alienating parents can be a bad revenue move, especially if the teen also feels manipulated. (At 18, the only protection is caveat emptor, which means we're all doomed.)

Here's the hole: Marketers -- especially retailers, online and off -- will pay big bucks for information about newly minted 13-year-olds. Because of COPPA restrictions, those new teen shoppers have been blank slates, since no one has wanted to go anywhere near the pre-13 set and risk awakening the FTC. But Google wants to change all that. As preteens set up their own accounts that list their actual ages, Google will quietly and discreetly start tracking them -- though it will do absolutely nothing with that data as long as the kids being tracked (potentially for years) remain younger than 13. But Google will then have petabytes of shopper-specific data to sell the instant those kids age out of COPPA protections.

Favorite colors, preferred brands, styles of clothing, musical likes, movie/book/TV show fondnesses and even what news stories they tend to click on -- that data will all be there for any merchant or marketer -- for a price.

There are many reasons why this move is a concern. (Let's set aside for the moment whether this violates Google's "don't be evil" motto.) First, even if you trust Google -- surely someone out there must -- any data collected and retained by a reputable firm can be stolen by evildoers, be they cyberthieves, identity thieves, kidnappers, rapists or simply aggressive marketers who don't want to pay for the data. Breaches happen. But let's say Google can manage to avoid that fate. You still have to wonder about the people who will pay for this data. How rigorously will Google screen the companies whose marketing dollars it takes? (OK, that's a very difficult sentence to type with a straight face.)

But beyond all of those concerns, let's not lose sight of the actual intent of COPPA. Did Congress just want to protect kids, or did it want to protect them from being tracked, to give them the freedom to explore the Internet without some virtual creep writing down everything they do and say?

The sad thing is that most of us would probably prefer that the virtual creep be Google. The company is hardly a paragon of virtue, it's true. It skims close to what's legal fairly often and does whatever it thinks is necessary to keep thriving. But that is what passes for an ethical corporation these days. Tracking preteens seems inevitable given the amount of money that it's worth to marketers. At least Google has lots of lawyers and investor relations people, as well as the inclination to enforce internal limits that comes with being publicly traded. Smaller and hungrier companies could well be less restrained.

Of course, if Google is successful with this course of action, others are sure to follow. I guess all we can do is hope they follow Google's example and don't make a complete mockery of COPPA.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.

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