Thursday 10 November 2011

Free Accounts & The Social Norm

Spotify decided to only to allow users to register new accounts using Facebook and I noticed yesterday that Khan Academy will only allow you to login using Facebook or Google.


I use Spotify, I pay for it and I like it. I would stop using it in a heart beat if they forced me to create Facebook account to use it. I’d miss it, but I’ve no intention of feeding Facebook. Not for something as trivial as music.

Khan Academy

I can understand Spotify succumbing to will of the mighty Facebook, but Khan academy surprises me.

We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.

Of course to use Khan Academy you don’t need to login to access the content, which is good. However if you want to track your progress then you do need to login. This is a real shame. With that in mind their statement about who they are and what they’re doing should read…

We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere*

*As long as you have a Google or Facebook account

Not Free

In both cases the support staff are quick to iterate that Facebook and Google accounts are free to sign up for. They might not have a monetary cost, but they are not free. In using either of these services you’re giving away data about you, your browsing habits, your social network and in some cases the purchases you make. That’s not free; it’s an exchange. They give you an online identity, you give them your offline identity in chunks that are so small they seem irrelevant. Put them all together over the course of time however and the total is anything but irrelevant.

Legal Motives?

I understand that for both of these services the COPPA act may play a part in their identity provider decisions. From this perspective shifting the responsibility seems like a legally wise move.

However, with so many incredibly talented people behind Khan Academy however it seems a real shame to ruin something as awesome as Khan Academy by having this issue as the first barrier to meaningful participation.


I’m no lawyer but according to the COPPA act compliance is for commercial websites - does this apply to not-for-profits? The act also only applies if you collect information that makes the child identifiable. Brighter minds than mine have discussed the issue and there seems to be an easy win. If you’re under 13, then give someone a username / password combination that they didn’t choose. This may not be great, but it fulfils the requirement of not taking any information that could identify the child and also provides a means of using the site that isn’t Google or Facebook.

The Future

Perhaps I’m being to prissy about my data and perhaps I’m way out of touch with the current willingness to hand over data to third parties. I’m actively looking to reduce and eventually remove all of my use of ‘free’ services - not expand it. I believe that sometime soon the way in which we class handing over data as a social norm will be looked at in the same way that smoking was once a social norm.

I don’t want the social equivalent of lung cancer. Passive or otherwise.