30/07/2012 08:13 BST | Updated 27/09/2012 06:12 BST

Google and Age Limits

Something quite remarkable has happened at Google and it seems to have passed by largely unnoticed.

Something quite remarkable has happened at Google and it seems to have passed by largely unnoticed.

Google were known to be more than a little miffed they had missed the social networking bandwagon. They first joined the fray with Google Buzz. It bombed. In November, 2011, the company announced that Buzz was being withdrawn. Meanwhile the guys at Mountain View had been busy creating a successor. Google + was launched in June of last year. The two products coexisted for a while.

At the time Google + came out the prevailing Terms of Service for every Google product or service were clear. To join or use any and all of them you had to be capable of entering into a legally binding contract.

A special arrangement could and still can be made to use Google products within schools or in an educational establishment but no equivalent or analogous permission exists for use outside those environments. For them you had to be of legal age.

So, for example, to use Google Search, YouTube or join Google + in most of the UK the minimum age was 18. In Scotland it might have been 16. Seemingly in Nebraska and Alabama 19 is the contractual age, in Mississippi it is 21 and in American Samoa it is 14. In Japan it is 20.

Hard to believe

In the past when I used to tell people that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in most of the world for that matter, you had to be at least 18 to use any and every Google product or service I knew some secretly thought

John's definitely got this one wrong. He must have misread or misunderstood the position. A rule which says you have to be 18 to use YouTube and Search! That's ridiculous. Kids everywhere use them all the time. It makes a mockery even of the idea of rules! It cannot be true.

Oh but it can. The enormity of the sheer, jaw-dropping impudence kind of takes your breath away. It's chutzpah on stilts.

It isn't working

Google nonetheless soon discovered that their plans for Google + were still not working. People were not flocking to the new service in the numbers they hoped they would. I think someone inside the company must have figured they could not go head to head with Facebook if the latter had a simple rule and they were stuck with 18, 16, 19, 21, 14 and 20.

Google relented. From 1st March, 2012, they expressly broke the link with the idea of being able to enter into a contract. Under the new terms in the USA and most other countries the minimum age of entry is now 13. They copied Facebook.

But here's the thing. What also seems to have happened is that about the same time, with one exception, they decided to change the minimum age for accessing all of their products and services.13 became the new lowest common denominator.

The one exception is where you wish to view material that has been classified as "mature content" on YouTube. Here 18 continues to be the rule. Not only that, you must have a YouTube account and be logged in to it. Casual browsers, whatever their age, cannot access "mature content".

An important moment

These changes to the age limits mark an important moment and I am surprised there has not been more comment about it.

For the first time ever Google officially acknowledges that legal minors use their services. Specifically they accept that 13 year olds do.

If Google think they need a triple-lock on showing "mature content" on YouTube why do they not extend the same reasoning to Google Search?

Google Safe Search

Google has three search settings

- No filtering

- Moderate filtering

- Strict

Moderate filtering is on by default. This does not block access to sites like pornhub, probably the hardest of hard core porn sites on the legal web.

Thus, unlike on YouTube, on Google Search you can be a casual surfer, not logged in to an account, and straight away get access to pornhub. What is the justification for that? For 13 year olds? And let's not forget the reality is gigantic numbers of sub-13 are on there too but I'm happy to stick with a consideration of the position of 13 year olds for now.

True enough you can go into the settings and turn on "strict". That is the only Safe Search setting which keeps out the pornhubs of this world but in order to do that

- you have to know about it or find out

- you have to locate the right place on the site

- you have to do it

- you have to lock it in

I have had people of Einstein levels of intelligence contact me to tell me how difficult they have found it to do bits or all of this.

If you click on the little spanner to customize Chrome there is nothing in Tools or Settings that speaks to the safe search option. That's because Chrome and Search are, technically, two different things although I wonder how many people fully appreciate that?

Turns out normally you have to get into a Search to be able to change the Search settings. This means you have to have a search result showing on your screen. The little wheel will be visible in the top right hand corner and you can switch to "strict".

The only snag is, without a Google account, you cannot lock in "strict". If you cannot lock in "strict" you cannot effectively control your children's access to hard core porn. In other words a near monopoly provider of search requires you to surrender your personal data to them in return for allowing you to maintain ongoing control over access to hard core pornography? Hmmmm. I will ruminate upon that. There is something about it which doesn't feel right.

They seek it here, they seek it there

In the old Terms of Service, irrespective of what you thought of the provision, there was at least a crisp and clear statement about age that was easy to work out for every jurisdiction. With the new Terms we have a riddle and a perseverance test.

Here are the words

Our Services are very diverse, so sometimes additional terms or product requirements (including age requirements) may apply.

That's it. The word age cannot be found anywhere else on that page. Neither is there anything which tells you where to find out about the age requirements to which Google themselves refer. I followed every hyperlink given in that section. Nothing. Or rather, after about eight or nine clicks I gave up. A couple of times I ended up back at the same Terms of Service where my journey had begun.

In desperation I decided to try to open up a Gmail account, giving my age as nine. This was the message I received:

In order to have a Google Account, you must meet certain age requirements. To learn more about online child safety, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website.

Brilliant. Someone at Google clearly has a cruel sense of humour.

On Google's page called "Creating an account" as far as I could see the word "age" does not appear. Even if you click on the hyperlink which says it will tell you about "information you provide at sign in" all you discover is that Google will ask for your date of birth so they can

.....provide you with things like age-appropriate settings.

Google doth speak unto Google

I then had one of my all too infrequent brainwaves. I tried Google Search to see what I could find out about Google's Terms. I entered "Google's age requirements" into the box. The No. 1 slot was taken by an answer to the question "Why was my account disabled?" Within that was a further hyperlink which, finally, got me to the place I needed to be.

Call me old-fashioned but I think certain things, important things, should be more obvious, intuitive, easy to find and all round a great deal easier to implement. This is the major reason I favour stronger defaults. Nobody should have to jump through hoops to stop pornhub popping up on their child's screen.

If there is now no contract what is there?

If 13 year old Google users are not engaging with Google on the basis of a contract, which obviously they can't be because they cannot make contracts, on what basis are they engaging with Google Search, YouTube and the rest?

What duty of care does Google think it owes to 13 year olds? Crucially, exactly how has the site or the services Google provides changed since 18 was dropped and 13 became the new entry point? I cannot say I have noticed anything.

The position in schools

Incidentally, while trawling around on this topic I decided to take a look at how the Google thing works in schools. There is a special page which introduces the main points.

A Head ends up having to enter the school's domain name. Just below it there is a hyperlink to the

Terms of Service which apply in the UK. Looks like these constitute a legally binding contract between the school and Google.

Have a look at paragraph 8.1 where, it seems, Google is delegating to schools, or maybe I mean imposing on them, obligations which it might otherwise have in relation to the COPPA legislation in the US. I wonder how many schools have checked out what their potential liability is under this clause?

You do not need to have an account with Google to use many of its services. Thus no COPPA related issues need necessarily arise simply by going on to YouTube or Search, but if a child chose to open a Google account, say while they were sitting at their desk in a school in Huddersfield, I seriously doubt that Google would be relieved of any obligations under COPPA simply by virtue of 8.1. My guess is, actually, an English school would have zero liability of any kind, but I would not swear to that. There could be issues in other parts of the law.

PS Did you notice I never even referred to the question of how Google tries, or doesn't, to verify the age of anyone who joins or uses any of its services including those wanting to view or possibly even supply "mature content"?