Xbox Live User Age Limits and COPPA Shortcomings

I was speaking this morning with my colleague Kevin about kids’ email addresses, and Gmail’s age limit, which I’ll probably cover another day. In that conversation, we shifted to talking about Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online gaming platform/community, and its age restrictions.

He received the following email from Microsoft recently:

Dear parent or guardian:

According to the birth date provided for your child’s Microsoft online account, is now 13 years old. You are therefore no longer able to manage permissions for the account through Account Services, and your child may create a new account without your permission.

United States law requires websites and services to obtain parental permission to collect, use, or share personal information from children under 13. Because this child is now 13, you can no longer manage permission for this child for Microsoft online services.

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 11.50.18 AMThere are a number of interesting angles here that parents should be aware of, and this example does a pretty good job of highlighting the weakness of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

  • Kevin had to lie about kidx’s age to set up a Gmail account, which many people do. According to the terms of COPPA, Google is required to get parental permission for users under 13, which would be a huge hassle. As a result, Google has no procedures for confirming that users are actually 13 or older. They don’t even try.
  • Since most social networks, apps and online gaming networks, also subject to COPPA regulations, require an email address to sign up, you could make the argument that the email providers should or could bear more responsibility in verifying user ages.
  • When Kevin signed kidx up for Xbox, he wanted the ability to control which games kidx was playing and for how long, so giving kidx’s real age gave him more rights as a parent.
  • Since kidx has turned 13, his parent Kevin now has less control over the restrictions on his account, which seems both arbitrary and inappropriate. Kevin still controls the password on the Xbox, but kidx can buy his own games and play with Microsoft’s blessing.

You can read the Xbox Terms of Use if you have a couple of hours. Unfortunately, COPPA does a better job of protecting website operators from being prosecuted than it does of protecting the privacy of minors. It’s a shame, but once again it’s a reminder that parents need to stay on top of what their kids are up to online.


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