On July 2, Alex Sutherland thought he'd hit the jackpot. The tech-savvy 10-year-old was able to log onto Google+ and set up his profile on Google's newly minted, and still very exclusive, social network, adding his parents to his Family Circle. This is a boy who, according to a blog post by his father Martin, a Web developer and consultant in the Netherlands, can type 50 words per minute, is PowerPoint proficient and has had a Gmail account for almost two years. Snagging a Google+ account was monumental.
And almost disastrous. The day after Alex plugged his birth date into his Google profile, he found his Gmail account locked. A message told him that he had 29 more days to prove that he was 13 or older. Otherwise, all of his Google services, including his Gmail account and his past correspondence, would be deleted.
Google+, Google's latest and, industry experts say, most promising attempt to break into the social-networking sphere, launched on June 28. In its first few weeks, people had to get off a waiting list to get into the site. But these days, if you want to be part of the Google+ club, it's much easier to find your way through the velvet ropes. Just be sure to have your ID ready at the door. Now that Google is helping you socialize, it's going to need some basic information, including how old you are. And if you're underage, your best bet is to try another social network. Unless you and your parents are ready to tell a 30-cent fib.
Google+ is currently not allowing anyone under the age of 18 to join its social circles. For those 13 to 17, their time will soon come: Google is developing safety features before welcoming in the pubescent masses that have long run wild on Facebook and MySpace. But kids under 13, like Alex, are seemingly out of luck. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal regulation that took effect in April 2000, forbids sites from collecting personal information from children under 13 without consent from their parents. "It's not as simple as just asking a parent for consent to let their child have an account," a Google spokesperson explained via e-mail. "There are associated implications for data and privacy involved," like reporting requirements about how information is being collected and used, and in some cases there has to be an option for parents to forbid third parties from accessing such data. That's why Facebook and some other sites simply forbid those under 13 from signing up in the first place.
"We've recently started asking for a user's age in more contexts, and we plan to start asking for age on more of our properties over time," says the Google spokesperson. For example, about a year and a half ago, Gmail began to ask for ages when creating accounts in the U.S. "If we learn that someone is not old enough to have a Google account or we receive a report, we will investigate and take the appropriate action." (Google is also raising hackles for not allowing anyone, regardless of age, to register for a Google+ account using a pseudonym.)
So how do kids join Facebook, MySpace and other sites that ask for one's birthday from the get-go? They lie. In May, Consumer Reports estimated that, based on its "State of the Net" survey of 2,089 online households in the past year, Facebook had 7.5 million active underage users, more than 5 million of whom were under 11.
No one is really blaming Facebook or MySpace or Google+. No matter how hard social networks try to find underage users, kids will find a new way to trick them. Cancel one account, they'll create another. In March, Mozelle Thompson, Facebook's chief privacy adviser, told the Australian federal parliament's cybersafety committee that the site removes 20,000 underage accounts each day. In Alex's case, he managed to get his Google account unlocked and get all of his e-mails back. How? With the help of his parents.
Just in case an eligible user accidentally enters an underage birth date, Google offers two means of correcting the error within 30 days: either send or fax a copy of a current government-issued ID, or let Google charge you 30 U.S. cents to confirm that you have a valid credit card as the logic seems to go, if you are over 18, you are capable of registering for a credit card. The nominal fee will also show up on the cardholder's monthly statement, where an eagle-eyed parent might notice even the tiniest of unauthorized charges. As Google states in its FAQs about age requirements, "If you are under 18, your parent or guardian will have to supply the confirmation on your behalf."