Google's terms of service, while ignored by the vast majority of users, contain a pretty shocking clause: Under 18's are not permitted to use any of Google's Web properties. That's right, kids--no search, YouTube, Gmail, news, or images.
Under 18s wishing to watch YouTube videos of skateboarding dogs, or perform research for a school project will have to go elsewhere--Ask.com or Microsoft's Live.com search, perhaps. The message from Mountain View seems clear: We don't want your (underage) business.
Google's terms of service, thick with legalese, state that:
"You may not use ... Google's products, software, services and web sites ... and may not accept the Terms if ... you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with Google.
The problem with this, of course, is that all 50 states in the United States require that someone be at least 18 years old to form a binding contract. As for what happens when a person under 18 attempts to agree to a click-through contract, the jury is still out on that one.
When contacted about the matter, a Google spokesperson initially told me that "users need to be at least 13 years old to use Gmail."
However, when I pointed out that the language in the company's terms of service contradicted her statement, she clarified her remarks, stating that: "We require users to be able to form a legally binding contract in order to use our services. The actual age required to form a legally binding contract may differ based on jurisdiction."
When I asked what the company would do if it found out that someone under 18 were using search, or Gmail, the spokesperson told me:
"We're not in a position to verify the age or legal status of any user, given the tremendous number of users accessing Google services. That said, when we become aware of a user who is violating our Terms of Service, including not being of proper age to accept the Terms of Service, we take appropriate action, which could include the termination of the user's Google Account."
After first seeing Google's no-kids policy in the company's terms of service, any rational person would assume that it's just standard legalese that all companies are required to include. However, it turns out that Google's dot-com competition is far more kid friendly.
Facebook's terms of service state:
"This Site is intended solely for users who are thirteen years of age or older, and users of the Site under 18 who are currently in high school or college."
"By using the MySpace Services, you represent and warrant that ... you are 14 years of age or older."
As for Microsoft's Live.com search engine and Ask.com, their terms of service don't mention age at all.
To this outside observer, it seems a little bit strange that 13+ year-olds can use social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, where many users post their gender, sexuality, religion, and a large number of potentially embarrassing photos. Yet, those same teenagers are forbidden from conducting a Web search. Surely things should be the other way around.
Google is currently running a Doodle 4 Google contest, in which K-12 students take a shot at designing a Google company logo. The winner will receive $10,000 and their art will appear on Google's home page for a day.
When viewed in light of the "no kids here" policy in the terms of service, Google's school outreach seems rather strange. Ironically, the winner of the contest will be forbidden from viewing his or her artwork on the main Google page, unless a parent types in the URL for them.
This is hardly Joe Camel territory, but it is still very strange. Why has the company gone out of its way to write up a terms of service that bans kids, yet at the same time, is engaged in kid-friendly promotions? Why does the site include anti-kid legalese that none of its competitors has opted to include?
The answer, for now, will remain unknown. Google's PR people toe the company line, and its lawyers, well, remain lawyers.