Lens on Google child mission

Safety program fuels debate

By Natasha Singer and Sapna Maheshwari / New York Times News Service in New York
  • Published 25.10.18, 1:58 AM
  • Updated 10.12.18, 12:40 PM
  • 2 mins read
  •  
Safety tips Agencies

Google is on a mission to teach children how to be safe online. That is the message behind “Be Internet Awesome,” a so-called digital-citizenship education program that the technology giant developed for schools.

The lessons include a cartoon game branded with Google’s logo and blue, red, yellow and green colour palette. The game is meant to help students from third grade through sixth grade against schemers, hackers and other bad actors.

Google plans to reach five million schoolchildren with the program this year and has teamed up with the National Parent Teacher Association of the US to offer related workshops to parents.

But critics say the company’s recent woes — including revelations that it was developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market and had tracked the whereabouts of users who had explicitly turned off their location history — should disqualify Google from promoting itself in schools as a model of proper digital conduct.

Among other things, these critics argue, the company’s lessons give children the mistaken impression that the main threat they face online is from malicious hackers and bullies, glossing over the privacy concerns that arise when tech giants like Google itself collect users’ personal information and track their actions online.

As an analysis of Google’s curriculum published in Emerging Library & Information Perspectives, a graduate student journal at Western University in Ontario, put it, “‘Be Internet Awesome’ generally presents Google as impartial and trustworthy, which is especially problematic given that the target audience is impressionable youth.”

In a statement, Julianne Yi, who leads the Google program, said it had “proven useful to kids, teachers, and families around the world,” and was supported by, among others, the National PTA, the International Society for Technology in Education and the Family Online Safety Institute.

Of those groups, Google is a national sponsor of the National PTA, a financial supporter of the Family Online Safety Institute and a year-round mission sponsor of the International Society for Technology in Education, which promotes the use of technology in public schools.

Jim Accomando, the president of the National PTA, said that the organisation “does not endorse any commercial product or service,” although companies that give money to the group may receive “promotional consideration”.

“Google is a great example of a partner that aligns with our goals, and they have deep tech knowledge that they bring to the table,” he said.

The cartoon game, Interland, offers an animated world “presented by Google.” In it, children navigate spammers and hackers in “Reality River” and consider who in their social network can see what they post online on “Mindful Mountain”.

The game, which comes with a lesson plan and classroom activities, is meant to teach children “the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence,” according to Google’s site description. Once students learn skills like how to create strong passwords and not share information with strangers, the program encourages them to be “fearless” online explorers.

Kerry Gallagher, an assistant principal at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Massachusetts, said Google’s program helped students learn concrete ways to be safer and kinder online.

To some observers, the game is essentially a big ad for Google.

David Monahan, campaign manager at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a non-profit advocacy group, likened the program to asking Budweiser to talk to parents and children about underage drinking.