Illinois Social Networking Bill Targets Minors

Published June 1, 2009

A member of the Illinois House of Representatives has introduced a bill to require social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace to obtain parental consent before allowing minors to create accounts.

The Social Networking Website Access Restriction Act (House Bill 1312) was authored by state Rep. Tom Cross (R-Plainfield) and has attracted 24 cosponsors. The bill would require social networking sites to verify individuals creating accounts are at least 18 years old or have parental consent. It also would require sites to give parents full access to their children’s profiles.

Merely ‘Illusion of Security’
Adam Thierer, an Internet regulation expert at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, believes the legislation will not work and raises serious privacy concerns.

“Mandatory age verification technologies and other types of regulatory efforts like those will not work as built,” Thierer said. “They create more problems than they solve because they create the illusion of security online. These systems will fail because there is no way to concretely prove the age and the child-parent relationship.

“It will lead people to believe they are operating in safe environments when in reality they are not as safe as they think they are,” Thierer added. “The theory is that we can separate adults from kids, and specifically, bad adults with bad intentions from good kids. That is an impossibility with the present technology.

“This proposed legislation is simply going to allow adults to think their children are safe, while they are not,” Thierer said. “What’s more, in an effort to require everyone to verify their age, what happens is that everyone has to put forward private information, which creates privacy concerns.”

Too Much Personal Info
Thierer said this attempt to protect children could end up putting more information about minors online—and available to the kinds of predators the bill wants to combat.

“Depending on how the mandate is structured, some information is still going to be collected,” Thierer said. “You have to have a mechanism to verify the child-parent relationship. To verify that, you need information—so, some questions arise.

“Who will verify it? Who will store it? And who will protect it? This is how personal information is amassed by third parties—who may move it around to a lot of intermediaries,” Thierer said. “What is ironic about this legislation is that in the name of protecting children they require us to surrender more information about ourselves and our children.”

Huge Compliance Costs
Andrew Grossman, a legal analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based public policy organization, does not think HB 1312 will accomplish its stated aim. He believes the bill will force private companies to spend lots of money and get little to show for it.

“Legislation like this essentially imposes requirements on Internet service providers,” Grossman said. “And what this particular legislation does is impose expensive requirements on ISPs, which they may ultimately have to extend even to blogs.

“Also, it’s problematic because in reality HB 1312 will do very little in respect to deterring sexual predators,” Grossman continued. “It creates a false sense of security. Parents need to be vigilant with respect to their children’s online use and not rely on government mandates or trust third parties and their technology to monitor their children.”

“Does the state of Illinois really think they can regulate the whole Internet?” Thierer asked.

Constitutional Questions
Thierer believes HB 1312 is doomed anyway because it is unconstitutional.

“There are serious constitutional problems with this legislation,” Thierer said. “For instance, it most certainly violates the Commerce Clause, but it brings up another constitutional question, too: Do minors have a right to talk to one another uninhibited? The courts will have to address this.

“Besides, the concern over sexual predators is a much smaller problem than lawmakers realize,” Thierer said. “As survey upon survey notes, the real problem is cyberbullying, and age verification technology is not a silver bullet to solve that. The vast majority of kids online will never encounter a sexual predator.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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