US-based websites and COPPA

Alex Sutherland, who is not yet 13 years of age, told Google+ his date of birth and promptly lost access to his Gmail account.

I’m not posting this to join any obnoxious blamestorm aimed at Alex or his parents: it sucks he lost his email archives and I hope that his parents are able to get it back for him. It sucks he had his trust breached and there’s no getting that back for him.

But I’m mostly posting because people are seeing the provisons of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for the first time and saying “pfft, not that hard to comply, why ban under 13s at all?” There was an illuminating comment on Making Light that is helpful there:

COPPA has a lot of “common sense” provisions which no doubt sounded great from the point of view of legislators and parents, but which are pretty appalling from the point of view of the operator of a Web 2.0 service. They’re burdensome enough, that, to my knowledge, only sites intended specifically and exclusively for children trouble to implement them. That is, no Web2.0 websites operating in the US permit users under the age of 13, except for specialty children’s sites. Not Google, not Facebook, not MySpace, not Livejournal, not Twitter, not Flickr or Picassa or Photobucket, not any web service here in the US.

Why? Well, you know how when you have a problem with your Gmail, you can pick up your phone and call Google’s tech support line? Ah ha ha ha. Right: no such thing. Well, one of the provisions of COPPA is that there has to be a phone number through which parents can call the service, as well as an email address at which they can email the service. Google doesn’t particularly want to have to pay operators to be standing by. No Web2.0 startup wants to be staffing a phone number open to the general public.

Google also doesn’t particularly want to figure out how to fulfill the provision of writing a statement as to what “information it collects” from (minor) users, since it allows users to type absolutely anything they want into those email bodies. Among sites for children, the open-ended TEXTAREA form field, like the one I’m typing this comment into, are seen as threats; highly structured or brief forms of input — pulldown menus and short text fields — are seen as safer. That prohibits most interesting Web2.0 applications.

Now Google is pretty big, it could afford to solve this if it wanted to, but has decided not to. But I think this is an issue worth knowing about in general: this means that children under 13 can’t participate in the Web as we know it today, essentially, because COPPA means that it’s prohibitively expensive to allow them to use websites that allow free-form content. Opinions might vary on whether this is a good thing (I certainly don’t think so, although I’m also not planning to turn my son loose on Google on his sixth birthday either), but it’s a thing.