Being evil

Google to delete child’s e-mails with grandparents

Ten-year-old Alex, an avid Internet user who, according to his parents, types 50 words per minute, uses Gmail to stay in touch with his grandparents. They live in California and Scotland. Alex loves Google, and leaped headfirst into the open beta test for Google+, a service meant to compete with Twitter and Facebook. Google+ requires a date of birth to use, presumably because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which attempts to regulate children’s use of the Internet, and defines a child as anyone below age 13.

Alex gave Google+ his real age.

The next time he logged into Gmail, the account had been locked. This account has years’ worth of correspondence with grandparents that he barely, if ever, meets face to face, and are his only record of them.

When his grandparents are gone, those e-mails would have been his memories of them. Alex has no access to the e-mails; the user interface does not allow locked accounts to browse previously sent or received e-mails, or to download them.

And Google, whose unofficial company motto is “Don’t be evil,” is planning to delete them forever.

Initially, my reaction was incredibly sour, because I saw the scenario like this: Alex agrees to beta test Google’s new product, and in response to what is essentially a favor, Google bans him from its e-mail service and gets set to delete all of his private correspondences.

When Alex made his Gmail account, it never asked him how old he was. It only asked him to agree to the terms of service, a 4,000-word document, which reads “You may not use the Services and may not accept the Terms if (a) you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with Google, or (b) you are a person barred from receiving the Services under the laws of the United States….” But this is 300 words in, and the terms of service never specifically state the age a Gmail user needs to be. Alex didn’t lie about his age in either case.

Now, the more realistic scenario is that an automated script saw Alex’s age on Google+ and then spotted a conflict between this and the terms of service. It was a holiday weekend, so it’s very unlikely that anyone at Google actually saw this and then made a decision.

But even if an automated process shut down the account, the spirit of such a script goes very much against the spirit of “don’t be evil.”

The very least Google could do is have some way for Alex—or any user in this situation–to retrieve his e-mails. At the end of the day, he and his grandparents wrote them. They have the intellectual rights to them, not Google—and to my eyes, Google has no right to delete the only copies of these letters, even if the user was inadvertently violating the terms of service.

Lisa Spangenberg, a former COPPA officer, wrote in response to a blog post about the incident that “Google doesn’t seem to have a COPPA statement that meets federal guidelines, which include a specific contact person or dedicated e-mail. Moreover, the 13 age limit usually has, as I’m sure (Alex’s parents) are aware, a proviso for parental consent.”

Online forums usually have a way for children 13 and under to have their parents agree to monitor Internet usage. That Gmail lacks this makes its service not only substandard in a literal sense, but also makes it openly hostile to children. This also promotes the idea that children will get what they want more often if they tell lies.

That’s evil, Google. Fix it.

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