North Carolina legislators are weighing the merits of a unique bill aimed at governing non-adult access to Internet social networking sites, including thorny issues on the role of parental approval and whether the measure can actually help curb child predation.
Senate Bill 132–The Protect Children From Sexual Predators Act–was passed by the state Senate in May and now resides in House judiciary and appropriations committees in a modified form.
The committees reportedly would consider favorable action on SB 132 if the proposal removes provisions requiring those under 18 to acquire written parental permission before being allowed to use such Web sites as MySpace and Facebook. The Internet introduction/meeting places are hugely popular with college and high school students, although there is widespread concern they make teens and preteens vulnerable to predators.
Legislators have raised questions about law enforcement, free speech, and restraint of trade problems that could be generated by SB 132, although they–and polls suggest the general public as well–favor bills and other government action designed to protect children from sexual predators.
Critics of the bill say although it is well-intentioned it will be ineffective in dealing with the problem because age verification can be easily circumvented.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) says secure, online procedures to verify the age of users will go a long way toward addressing the problem of child predators. He and state Sen. Walter Dalton (D-Rutherfordton), who introduced the bill, have expressed hope the two legislative chambers can work out common ground toward passage of SB 132.
“All we’re doing is giving parents the right to make a choice whether their children can go online,” Cooper told House lawmakers, adding the measure would lead to “fewer children at risk, because there will be fewer children on those Web sites.”
Dalton, currently a candidate for lieutenant governor, mustered 16 co-sponsors for the bill. He says although the proposed bill won’t stop all sexual predators from getting on social networking sites, it addresses a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. “There is obviously a compelling state interest to protect our children from sexual predators,” he told national and state press in Raleigh.
Cooper has said he is disappointed by efforts to water down SB 132, especially since he told legislators in open hearings that networking sites are favorite places for predators to look for victims. His staff report to the lawmakers showed MySpace had identified more than 29,000 sex offenders on its site.
Cooper’s office reportedly also found more than 100 criminal incidents this year of adults using MySpace to prey or attempt to prey on children.
‘False Sense of Security’
While sympathizing with the aims of the bill, Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, who also testified on the bill, argued it could actually make children less safe online.
“The very real potential exists that we are creating solutions that inject a false sense of security in parents and children alike. The age verification process is not synonymous with background checks. It tells little about the person being verified and can be duped by parents who are in fact predators using their children to create false credentials,” Thierer said.
“Even assuming we do not encounter problems with the initial sign-up phase and procedures, questions remain about follow-ups and subsequent validations,” Thierer added.
“There are serious privacy issues at stake here,” Thierer pointed out, “and those issues could give rise to other problems. Will age verification mandates encourage the rise of an illegal black market in credentials?”
The parental verification requirement “makes promises to consumers that cannot be kept,” said Emily Hackett, executive director of the Washington-based Internet Alliance. “It is dangerous language,” she told North Carolina lawmakers. “There is no way to eyeball a user.”
A software company called Aristotle, with operations in San Francisco and Washington, DC, told lawmakers about its age verification tool, named Integrity, that works by checking out standard drivers’ licenses or other government-issued IDs of citizens in 157 nations. It claims more than 50 million consumers have used Integrity to verify their IDs with global companies, government agencies, and merchants.
Thierer advocates better education for young users, empowering parents with more and better tools addressing media and communications, and stepped-up law enforcement efforts to find and adequately prosecute child predators.
Frank Barbetta ([email protected]) writes from Little Falls, New Jersey.