Google has a growth plan based on kids, report says

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Children under the age of 13 are a massive and relatively untapped market for internet companies due to federal privacy laws, but now Google is ready to risk those treacherous legal waters in order to sign them up.

According to the Information (subscription required), Google is preparing features like a kid-safe version of YouTube and a parental dashboard in order to attract more kids onto its sprawling web platform, which also includes products like Gmail and Chrome.

Such moves by Google would echo similar initiatives by Facebook, which has reportedly been experimenting with “under-13 features” since at least 2012.

For the internet giants, signing up the under-13 crowd is a big opportunity, in part because millions of young people reportedly use their services under false credentials already. And given their growing role as authentication and identity platforms, it makes strategic sense for Google and Facebook to get their hooks into young users early — something that will be easier to do if the kids’ parents help them with the process.

The role of parents is not just a marketing strategy, of course, but a legal necessity as well. And the pressure on companies is even higher since the Federal Trade Commission expanded rules last year that require “verifiable parental consent” if a company wants to collect personal information from users under 13.

For the companies, getting proof of this consent is not easy. The FTC suggests various methods, including getting signed letters from the parents or “Having the parent call a toll-free telephone number staffed by trained personnel.”

Taking such steps would amount to a significant burden for tech companies that typically shy away from regulatory-intense activities, but realistically they have little choice since federal law that protects the under-13’s, known as COPPA, provides nasty penalties for companies that violate it — just ask struggling social network Path, which agreed to pay $800,000 last year to settle claims over 3,000 under-age accounts.

But for Google, which did not immediately reply to a request for comment, the legal hassle appears to be worth the chance to sign up millions of ever-younger users.

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