The article I wrote on Sunday about Alex being cut off from Google generated quite a bit of attention and feedback. Most of it was positive, much of it was well-meaning, and some of it was dark and ugly. Unfortunately, those proportions were not reflected in the comments left here on this blog.
I shut down comments yesterday afternoon because they were turning toxic, and I don't want to deal with that kind of negativity. I only deleted a few comments, because I didn't want to distort the picture that appeared, or make it seem like everyone was on my side.
To everyone who expressed their sympathy, support, and understanding, thank you. We've had some wonderfully kind and generous messages over the last couple of days.
To everyone who thinks I'm a bad parent, a hypocrite, or just a whiner: whatever. You probably complain about parents bringing their kids on airplanes, too. I don't have anything to say to you.
But the numerous responses from well-meaning people offering suggestions made me think a lot. I wrote the article just an hour or so after the incident, and I was feeling angry and upset. Why was I feeling that way?
First of all, it's not not about data loss. That may seem the most obvious thing to be upset about, but we've got that covered. We have Alex's email set up so that both Abi and I receive copies of everything sent to him. We can restore much of his correspondence from there. Additionally, as many people pointed out, we can just lie about his age and get his account unlocked within minutes.
I think this is why many of the responses were along the lines of, "What's your problem? Just lie like everyone else, and use this as a lesson to teach him not to trust Google/corporations/the cloud/anyone."
As a practical matter, I fully expect to do exactly that at some point in the next day or two. Alex will have his email back, and everything will go back to normal. But as a matter of principle, I get sick of lying every time I have to tick that "I have read and understood..." checkbox, when the language in most ToS documents — and the fact that they are generally hidden on a secondary page — is clearly designed to make sure that you don't read or understand them. Given that this episode came about because of a ToS violation, I just reached a breaking point here. If Google is going to deny services to children under 13, they need to put a date of birth field on the sign-up forms for all of their services, even Gmail.
Simple as that. (Update: nothing is ever "simple as that". See comment.)
Secondly, it's not about not about being cut off from email. There are plenty of other email providers out there who will allow us to provide parental consent for a child account. Finding a provider outside the US probably isn't that hard, either. I know how to set up my own email server, but I prefer to let other people handle that for me.
We deliberately chose Gmail as Alex's email client because it has a simple interface, and its spam filtering is the best in the business. I love Gmail, but it would be a matter of minutes to get him up and running with an alternative mail solution. So again, "What's your problem? Just switch and move on."
Here is the heart of the matter for me: it's the moment of horror when you realize that something you love is gone. The sickening crash when your grandmother's precious ornament slips out of your hands and hits the floor. The hollow dread in your stomach right after you accidentally delete the production database. The moment you come home after a long road trip, and discover that you left your favourite cuddly toy behind at a rest stop 400 miles away.
That's how Alex felt when he realized he was locked out of his email.
No matter how quickly we reassured him that we'd find a way to get it back, that moment of shock and pain and despair still creased his face. No matter how much we hugged him and wiped away his tears, he still hurt, in that special way when you blame yourself for what happened. Alex followed the instructions in the invitation to sign up for Google+. He entered his real date of birth. And because of that, he wasn't just denied access to the new service, he lost access to everything he had with them before.
Yes, I was at fault for confirming that I had read and understood the Terms of Service when I created Alex's Gmail account on his behalf.
Yes, I was at fault for not supervising every moment of Alex's online life. He surprised Abi and me both when he said he had added Abi to a Circle in Google+. We don't use net nanny software; the computer he uses is in plain view in the living room. We may receive copies of his emails, but we don't obsessively scrutinise every one. We talk with him a lot about online behaviour, and we try to steer him away from problem areas. We also feel that he has shown enough responsibility to deserve the independence we grant him. If that changes, we will re-evaluate. We like raising Free Range Kids; that's one of the reasons we live in the Netherlands rather than Britain or the USA.
Yes, Google acted perfectly legally, and in accordance with their Terms of Service. As soon as they acquired Alex's date of birth, and tied it to his overall Google identity, they were obliged to act on that knowledge. Not doing so would mean breaking the law; I understand that.
What I blame Google for, though, and what is entirely under their own control, is poor implementation and lack of empathy. Rolling out Google+ is a massive undertaking, on a scale I have never dealt with. I don't think that "weeding out underage Gmail users" was an item on the project plan; I'm sure it's an unintended consequence. But the failure mode is harsh, and offers no recourse for parents who would grant legal consent (within the USA-specific scope of COPPA) for their child to use the service, to actually do so. Legal and nice are perpendicular scales. You can obey the law and still be a dick. (Wil Wheaton says: Don't be a dick.)
Alex is not going to be scarred for life, and I'm sure he's going to learn useful lessons here. But he trusted Google, and they failed him hard. In his words, "I might even start using Yahoo for search."
Alex is not amused