The internet has changed the lives of billions of individuals and many of those individuals are children.
From services that provide educational tools to services that make it easier for children to interact with relatives far away, it's no surprise that the internet and internet-connected devices are used prolifically by younger and younger children today.
At the same time, the internet can be a dangerous place for kids. So it's no surprise that there are laws designed to protect children on the internet. But do some of those laws actually do the opposite?
On Sunday, a father named Martin Sutherland published a post on his blog that created a firestorm of attention. Entitled "Google made my son cry", he explained how his 10 year-old son, Alex, had his Gmail account terminated after he provided his age in conjunction with his son's registration for Google+:
Today, he tried to use Gmail, but found that his account was locked. A big scary message says that his account has been shut down because Google has discovered a Terms Of Service age violation.
Not only is the account inaccessible, they also say that they will delete it in 29 days, unless he provides them with evidence that he is over 13 years old. All because he entered his date of birth when he created his Google Profile.
Alex was in tears. He is enormously upset about this. Google is basically just going to delete his last two years of email messages (they don't offer any way to log in and export his messages), and plans to cut him off from his family until he turns 13.
This is a kid who lives on the computer. He types 50 words a minute, builds immense structures in Minecraft, programs in python, and has better Powerpoint skills than his teachers at school.
Sutherland has little sympathy for Google, writing "You made my son cry, Google. I'm not inclined to forgive that." But is Google really at fault here?
The reason Google and many other companies don't allow children under certain ages to use their services is that there are laws preventing them from doing so.
In the United States, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, commonly known as COPPA, places restrictions on the kind of information companies can collect from children under the age of 13 online. While COPPA does not prevent companies from collecting personal information from those under 13, it does require parental permission.
As one can imagine, the requirements around obtaining that permission can be burdensome, so it's not viable for most companies to ask for parental permission, particularly when their services are used by millions of people.
Of course, plenty of children under the age of 13 use services like Gmail, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook anyway. They simply agree to terms of service under which they represent that they're above a particularly age, or lie about their age if required to supply a birth date during registration.
Obviously, companies can't verify the accuracy of every piece of information provided during registration, so they unknowingly provide their services to children under 13. Laws like COPPA, of course, disincentivize companies from trying too hard to verify whether each new registration is really being made by someone of a particular age.
Which begs the question: are COPPA and laws like it really effective? These laws seem well-intentioned. Few of us would argue that the safety of children online isn't of concern. Yet these laws are often counterproductive.
As in the case of Alex, they prevent companies from providing often useful services to children legally, and encourage children to 'lie' about their ages. That means that in many cases, services are being used by children but the companies providing those services don't know it. T
his, of course, actually puts children in greater danger since service providers are unable to provide additional protections for accounts used by children.
So what's the solution?
Laws like COPPA, which force companies to officially close their services off to children but which don't actually prevent children from using them, should be done away with.
Instead, companies should be given the opportunity to provide their services to children so long as they adhere to common sense rules and guidelines around the disclosure of personal information belonging to child users.
When it comes to making sure that children are truly safe online, the reality is that children are going to use the internet and parents like Martin Sutherland are, at the end of the day, the only ones who can make sure that their children's internet use is not inappropriate or putting them in harm's way.