More on Google and online identity

“Google seemingly split on pseudonymous Google+ accounts and Google Profiles – It’s okay until it isn’t” by Tateru Nino (via Dave Bell on Making Light) is another interesting look at the side effects of the rollout of Google+. It seems that Google+ and Google Profiles share some aspects of a honeypot for people with the audacity not to use their full real-world identity online so they can be more effectively marketed to.

And then there’s “Last Post” over at Cockpit Conversation (via Sylvia on Making Light), which is another tale of someone losing access to their Gmail and blog (hosted by Google) because of a date of birth issue.

People blogging about these particular problems are the visible tip of the iceberg. There must be thousands of other people who are running up against the same issues. And unfortunately, unless you know someone inside Google, the only way to ask them for help with some really scary problems is to post in an open forum. (And seriously, if you’re not a computer geek with the knowledge to figure it out, losing access to your email can be terrifying.)

Despite all the people posting on that forum about date of birth problems preventing them from accessing their accounts, so far Google’s best official response there seems to be “Google is aware that mistaken dob entries have precluded some users from entering the Google+ Project in it’s initial field trial.”

For a company whose motto is “don’t be evil,” and that is filled with engineers driven to make the internet a better place not just for Google users, but for all of us, this kind of hands-off take-it-or-leave-it approach is…disappointing.

For reference (because people have been asking), we haven’t heard anything from Google about our own particular situation, either formally or through back channels. As many people have pointed out, we could use the account recovery process to claim that we made an error, and enter a fake date of birth that shows Alex is over 13. But this is the only circumstance in which Google allows you to change the date of birth in your profile. Once it is in there, it is in there for good, and there would be no way for Alex to reset it once he is old enough. This may be problematic if he decides wants to keep using this particular Google account in the future.

How to fail at mobile web

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Build an iPhone and Android app first.
  2. Realise that there are other platforms out there.
  3. Build a mobile website (aka “HTML5 app”) for the other platforms. Aim to make the mobile web site behave the just like the iPhone and Android app, “only in HTML5”.
  4. Be disappointed when the mobile web site runs like crap on a Nokia, and doesn’t render at all on a Blackberry 5.
  5. Starve the mobile website of resources and attention in favour of the shiny native apps that give good demo.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Don’t consider the mobile web as just something to “fill in the gaps.” iPhone owners use the web, too. Research shows that page load times matter. If an iPhone user clicks a link to your site, what do you think will make them happier?

  • 3 seconds to load a nicely mobile-optimized web page, with fewer bells and whistles, but with clear calls to action and a “buy” button
  • 3 minutes to hit the app store, download, install, and launch your app

Sometimes you don’t want to create a new account with a web store just to make a simple purchase. Sometimes you don’t want to download an app just to interact with a service. The mobile web is different. Play to its strengths, not its weaknesses.

Alex and Google, follow-up

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.
Alex is not amused

Google made my son cry

Alex is 10 years old. He has had a Gmail account since September 2009 — almost two years. He uses email to keep in touch with his grandparents, who live in California and Scotland. He is signed up to get newsletters and updates from his favourite online hangouts, like Roblox and Hyves. He has just started using Google Chat to chat with me over IM, even though I’m usually just sitting at my desk on the other side of the room.

Yesterday, he noticed that Google+ was enabled for his account. Yay! So he made himself a Google Profile, and added me and Abi to his family circle. Even Alex had heard about Google+, and he was excited to be using it.

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.

He has learned to live with the disappointment of not being able to have his own YouTube account, because YouTube asks for your date of birth on the sign-up page. But the Gmail sign-up page doesn’t ask you for your age. It does, of course, ask if you accept the Terms of Service. Oh right. The Terms of Service. Which apply to all Google services:

2.3 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 or other countries including the country in which you are resident or from which you use the Services.

Just because no-one reads the Terms of Service, doesn’t mean that they don’t apply. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law. But seriously, this USA-centric age 13 bullshit is a blight on the internet. Alex has been using the web since before he could fucking read. To him, Google practically is the web. But according to these Terms of Service, he’s not even allowed to use Google Search.

You made my son cry, Google. I’m not inclined to forgive that.

Update, 4 July 2011 20:50: Comments closed because of Olympic-level asshattery. Well played, internet. Well played.

Update, 4 July 2011 23:55 I’ve posted a short update over on Making Light. Don’t even think about trolling over there.

Update, 5 July 2011 17:00 I’ve removed the link to the update mentioned above, because all the trolls decided to poison the comments over on that site, too. [Restored now that the flames have died down a bit.] If you want to express support or sympathy, thank you. Go give someone you love a nice hug. If you want to express your disapproval of me, please do so on your own blog.

Update, 5 July 2011 20:50 Or alternatively contact me at Don’t post responses in comment threads elsewhere on this blog; I’m just deleting them immediately.

Update, 6 July 2011 01:50 I have written a follow-up article which acts as my global response to the comments that the original article generated.

A Life Less Sweetened

I’m running an experiment on myself:

  1. Avoid artificial sweeteners
  2. Avoid glucose-fructose syrup
  3. Minimize refined sugar

I’m trying this because I love sweet foods and drinks too much. I’m not a coffee person, but I am a caffeine person, and for many years most of my caffeine consumption has been in the form of diet cola — usually between 1 and 2 litres per day, but often more. When I drink tea, I prefer it strong (“chewy”), milky, and very sweet. I love chocolate and sweets, and eat lots of them.

I’m not doing it because I think that artificial sweeteners are going to give me brain cancer, or that high-fructose corn syrup is going to give me heart disease. I don’t have enough medical and dietary knowledge to evaluate the evidence for myself, and the media sure as hell aren’t going to do it for me. Like climate change and nuclear power, this is a researchable matter, but there are too many entrenched interests willing to fund opposing studies, and lobby governments to torpedo any positive actions they might take.

But at some point I have to look at my own behaviour — regardless of what everyone else does and thinks — and ask myself if it makes sense to me. I hate saying “all this sweetness can’t possibly be good for me”, because it feels unscientific and irrational. But that’s kind of what it comes down to.

Since reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma last year I’ve been thinking more about the things I eat. I’ve got to the point now that my consumption of sweet things feels unbalanced. I worry about sweetness leading to more sweetness: the amount of diet cola I drink may not add anything to my calorie balance for the day (helping me keep my trim, youthful figure), but it may be habituating me to that amount of sweetness in my diet, and making it more likely that I will (for example) guzzle down an entire family pack of peanut M&Ms whenever I visit the cinema.

So: less sweetness. I’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks now. I find the lack of caffeine…disturbing, so I’ve taken to popping raw caffeine pills to supplement my increased intake of sparkling mineral water. I’m finding that I have fewer chocolate cravings, and that my overall appetite (“the prowling hunger”) seems to be less, but that might be down to the fact that it’s summertime and warm. I’m getting used to drinking plain tap water, and ignoring the habit to drink something flavourful to quench my thirst — this definitely feels like a good thing.

Longer term? We’ll see. It’s interesting, though.