Google Buzz & kids’ privacy

By Anne Collier

Because Buzz is brand-new and a hybrid of Gmail, micro-blogging, cellphone social mapping, and social networking, we’re all at the early stages of figuring out its implications for kids – a lot of whom use Gmail. Yesterday Charlene Li, a mom and well-known social-media-industry analyst, blogged that she had discovered her 9-year-old daughter was using and really enjoying Buzz. Using it from her computer (people can also use Buzz on Apple iPhones and Google Android phones), the child had had one conversation on it with her friends. The problem was that the kids didn’t know their conversation was public. Li wrote that “the easiest thing to do as a parent is to simply disable Buzz, meaning that the Google profile and all followers are deleted – permanently” (go to the bottom of your child’s Gmail page and click “turn off Buzz,” which will take you to where you can disable it). But because Li’s daughter enjoyed Buzz so much, she seems open to “managing groups, privacy settings, etc.” so her child can continue using the service. “We’ll give it a try,” she writes, “but unless her friends also keep the conversation private, it will all be for naught.” Ensuring that with all the other kids and their parents could be quite a project. Privacy is now a collective effort – by users too, not just providers (see “Collaborative reputation protection“).

Last summer Google agreed, in response to a complaint by one of the FTC’s “safe harbors” (organizations that help it enforce the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA), to require a birth date at registration to Gmail and, if a user indicates he or she is under 13, a session cookie to block the user from re-registering with an earlier birthdate. That’s a start, but what this issue points to is the impact on children’s privacy of combining social-media products within companies and connecting them across networks such as Facebook Connect. Perhaps the FTC’s forthcoming review of COPPA rules and enforcement will address this emerging issue. But we feel the brilliant software engineers and project managers who develop these products need to wear their parent hats more, companies need to be thinking through children’s privacy from the earliest development stages, and industry best practices need special sections or clauses addressing child privacy and safety. [See also “Google Buzz isn’t exactly humming along” in the Wall Street Journal; “Does Google Buzz violate COPPA?” by Marquette University law Prof. Bruce Boyden (the jury’s still out, he indicates); and my post at Buzz’s launch, “Major buzz about Buzz, but not about its safety.”]

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