“I want to talk to my lawyer!” yelled a room full of Apple developers last week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) at the behest of Apple VP of Internet Software and Services (and employee #8). Why the visions of billable hours dancing in their heads? The increasingly stringent worldwide regulations for marketing to children.
In his Kids and Apps Session, Espinosa, who joined Apple at the kid-like age of 14 and is the company’s longest-serving employee, surveyed this thorny territory with an upbeat cadence reminiscent of Mr. Rogers. Despite the complexities, he explained to the eager developers, Apple has a plan—and it’s a good one. The nut of the COPPA regulations (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, circa 2000) concern the conditions under which developers and game companies can target users under the age of 13 with their products (and attendant advertising) and if they can collect any form of persistent data about them.
Online privacy and marketing to children are important issues, if you bother to think through the implications of what your children may do and be exposed to on their interactive devices, but face it, most parents glaze over about this stuff. The more expedient concern is often appeasing the tykes so we can get back to our email, ESPN ScoreCenter, Pinterest pinboards and fuddy-duddy Facebook feeds.
This need for speed has created mounting collateral damage as we realize that our (adult) iTunes accounts have become overrun with Pretty Little Liars, Thomas The Train and A$AP Ferg. You see, in order to sidestep those COPPA regulations and the (very real fear) that Junior will run up in-app purchases on Contract Killer, Apple has not allowed kids under 13 to have their own iTunes accounts. In order to provide a semblance of persistent play, it did allow younger children to have their own identity-free Game Center accounts in iOS, but this did nothing about the mingling of the familial iTunes account.
The annoyances of this arrangement have grown as Apple has tried to increase the convenience of the user’s experience by synching everything with iCloud. With each software update family members would all of a sudden have access not only to each other’s purchased content and games but also their email and text message accounts. Surveilling your children may be useful at times, but being surveilled by them is intolerable!
And the next set of software developments are bound to make this muddle even worse. Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered recommendation and personalization services are the next big thing after ubiquitous cloud services. The demands of competition with other platforms, notably Google, Facebook and Microsoft and a cohort of nascent startups massing for acquisition by the same, is driving this trend, but so is the wearables market that Apple hopes to dominate with its forthcoming iWatch. Small screens, short timeframes and mobility require that the precise bits of appropriate content be curated with lightening speed.
Fortunately for Apple, its developers and its customers, the new Family Plan it announced at WWDC will mostly solve these problems and be a big win for all concerned. The secret? Allowing kids under 13 to have semi-autonomous iTunes accounts under the management (and credit card) of a parent. By making this management easier than the anarchic alternative, Apple is effectively offloading some of the responsibility for COPPA compliance on to the parents of the children the law is designed to protect. Don’t want Junior to play Gun Bros (or blow $600 on an “Apathy Bear?”) Decline the notification from the little rascal!
The way the Family Plan works is that one parent becomes the administrator of the family account and invites the other family members for a total of up to six people. The linked iTunes accounts need to share the same payment method. Once this is all in place, the children can make purchases—with parental approval—and all family members potentially have access to all of each other’s purchases.
This potential part is important because the Family Plan sits on top of Apple’s existing parental controls. In this context, if a family member does not have permission to view R-rated movies, for example, these will not even be visible (to that family member) on the list of the parent’s purchases from which the child can choose.
In practical terms this has three main implications. For the members of the family groups themselves it means the end of the enforced identification of each member with the primary iTunes account. This should make integration of iCloud services easier because automatic syncing will lead to fewer “false positives.” It will also make each family member’s iTunes experience more curated since they will not find their devices automatically downloading Hannah Montana episodes.
The bigger news for app developers, both within Apple and third-party, is that curation and personalization of recommendations are much easier to do when a user’s training data is not contaminated by that of their kid sister or boomer dad. If Apple uses this capability wisely, and makes it available to outside developers, it could net significantly increased purchases per family member. Yes, the mom or dad will get automated alert messages that they will need to respond to when their kids want to make purchases, but the kids are automatically logged into the payment method so, from a management perspective, the approval takes but a single click.
Here’s where it gets just a little evil. The same pressure to placate the impatient children still exists, but to pass COPPA rules the parent needs to sign off on each purchase. So parents will still find themselves saying “yes” to things they have not properly considered, but now they are responsible, not Apple or the manipulative game developer or exploitative content producer. Clever, Apple, very clever!
The most interesting aspect of this to me culturally is that Apple has defined a family as a group of people (not necessarily in the same location) who share a credit card. That’s it! No legal status, no bloodlines, just pure consumerism. I can imagine this seeming disruptive to people who define family in more traditional terms. Gay marriage is still about defining an emotional commitment between people, but the Apple “family” is a purely economic construct whose defining characteristic is the clarity of the resulting data and the ease of revenue growth!
It is easy to see how the Apple Family Plan could play out among groups of roommates or other intentional communities. If the idea takes hold, look for the phone companies and even Amazon Prime to follow suit. The post-modern family has been moving in this direction for years, towards being an economic and cultural interest group, and the spread of mobile devices and cloud services is quickening the pace. Apple has no choice but to try to fix the mess it has made of family’s media collections and personal data, but the solution has cultural implications it may not be anticipating.
On purely practical terms, I am looking forward to the clarity that the Family Plan will bring to my family. I am tired of the patriarchal iTunes account mingling everyone’s content and privacy. Every day I am asked to explain why iTunes is trying to download that movie on this person’s laptop or why my text messages are showing up on that person’s iPhone. It is patently clear that each person needs their own iTunes account to actually take advantage of iCloud integration. Without that, it’s just a big muddle that delivers more hassle than value. For Apple to deliver on cloud services that will really tie us to Apple—and each other—we need to address each individual uniquely, “no matter how small,” to quote Dr. Seuss. Getting the hierarchy right is the key to both sanity and success.
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