Google May Start Grooming Little Googlers
"Companies realize that children are a huge, financially lucrative market," said the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester. While they may present their efforts under the guise of improving education or other aspects of children's lives, "marketers just see huge dollar signs," he charged. "We have real concerns. ... We're going to take a very close, critical look at this."
Google is working on a plan to allow kids under 13 to have their own personal accounts on services such as YouTube and Gmail, according to reports.
Under the new system, parents will be able to set up accounts for their children, control their use of those accounts, and regulate the information collected about them, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Google declined to comment for this story, noting that it does not comment on rumor or speculation.
'Just Recognizing Reality'
It's long been commonplace for children to lie about their age when signing up for online services such as YouTube and Facebook, and there's been little the Internet providers could do about it.
"On one level, you could say that Google is just recognizing reality," Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy for the Local Search Association, told the E-Commerce Times.
"Children under 13 do use Google services such as Google.com and YouTube. Large numbers of under-13 kids also have Gmail accounts already. This would just put a formal process or procedure around that usage," he said.
Google's likely motivation is "a desire to compete with Facebook and other properties like Instagram, which see significant usage among kids under 13. It's seeking to cultivate the next generation of Google users," Sterling pointed out.
'A Piece of That Action'
"Google is probably seeing subscriber growth slow in the U.S. and wants to find new customers," he told the E-Commerce Times. "It knows that kids who really want Google accounts can easily get them, and I'm sure it's hearing from some parents that they'd like to indulge their kids' interest in going online at an earlier age.
"Facebook is already popular with teens, and I'm sure Google would like a piece of that action," Gillin added.
'They Influence Parental Spending'
It's very difficult to convince teens and adults who already are using other social networking sites to switch to Google, noted Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst with Tirias Research.
"So, Google is attempting to target the next generation of users, which is what Apple initially did when they targeted the education market," he told the E-Commerce Times.
The potential benefits for Google are clearly compelling.
"Long term, there would be a benefit from more loyal users," Sterling noted. "In the near term, many people are already seeing the ads."
Kids may not have credit cards, "but they influence parental spending," he added.
'A Seeding Strategy'
Still, Google would be wise not to focus on any immediate financial benefits, Gillin warned.
"If they know what's good for them, it means nothing to them financially," he said. "The FTC looks down upon any marketing to children, and that would particularly apply in Google's case, because so much of its marketing strategy is based upon behavioral analysis."
Rather, Google's best option is to look at this as "a seeding strategy," Gillin suggested.
In other words, "use the new accounts to let kids play safely online under strict parental supervision, and nurture them toward becoming Google loyalists in the long term," he explained. "I think Google knows this, and I doubt it would make the mistake of trying to cash in financially before any of its new customers are 18."
What remains to be seen is how well Google can protect younger users, McGregor said, noting the potential for this to "turn into a legal nightmare."
Google is "wading into complicated waters," said Sterling, "because it will have to filter content and ads, and may be opening itself up to litigation by saying it's going to provide a 'safe' or 'more controlled' environment for kids to use its services."
Still, the company "has done a pretty good job in the past of staying within legal boundaries," Gillin pointed out.
"Note that no details have been released at this point, so it's pure speculation how they might structure such an offering," he added. "It's also possible that Google is letting this idea leak to see what the reaction is and then will decide how to proceed based upon that. That's a smart strategy."
'Huge Dollar Signs'
The Center for Digital Democracy is worried, however, and it's already shared its concerns with the Federal Trade Commission, said CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester.
"Companies realize that children are a huge, financially lucrative market," he told the E-Commerce Times.
While they may present their efforts under the guise of improving education or other aspects of children's lives, "marketers just see huge dollar signs," Chester charged.
"We have real concerns," he added. "We think Google operates its data-targeting system in diverse and largely nontransparent ways. We're going to take a very close, critical look at this.
"We intend to ensure that Google is honest with parents and doesn't engage in the same targeting practices" that it does with adult consumers, he said. "Otherwise, kids will be at risk -- everywhere they go, Google will be a silent adult presence lurking behind their screens, capturing information that will be sold to advertisers in real time." 'Not Alarmed at All' Some kids' advocates are taking the rumor in stride.
"I'm not alarmed at all," Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, told the E-Commerce Times.
"Most of the big networks have been looking at ways to 'bite the preteen bullet,' and all of us know there are tons of kids who lie about their age to use YouTube and Gmail -- some are even encouraged by their teachers," she pointed out.
"The good thing is, we already have a law that specifies what can and can't be done," Aftab noted, referring to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.
Moreover, "Google is very good about reaching out to all of us in the privacy and safety community, all the time," she added. "They talk to the right people, and they have a road map because COPPA tells them what to do."