Bills that would require social networking Web sites such as MySpace.com to age-verify every user have been introduced in Connecticut, Georgia, New York, and North Carolina. The bills also would force social networking sites to obtain parental consent for members who are minors and give parents access to their children’s personal pages and emails.
Although reports of child predators using social networking sites to target victims have been largely anecdotal, state legislatures have taken steps to address Internet safety through legislation. While some of those measures mandate sensible practices, critics say many of the proposed laws would be technologically unworkable and have serious unintended consequences.
“Age verification is a ‘silver bullet’ that won’t work,” said Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation. He sees it as a “feel-good” measure that might lull parents into a false sense of security about the Internet.
Thierer and others recognize the need to address online safety, but not in the way specified so far in most legislation. One reason the bills won’t work, they say, is that it’s impossible to use online methods to precisely determine a child’s age.
Proponents say age-verification works for limiting minors’ access to tobacco and alcohol. But Thierer notes those are face-to-face transactions. “You can’t age verify for digital communications,” he said.
Minors do not have access to documents that are widely accepted for verification of identity and age, such as a driver’s license, Thierer noted. Nor do minors have the track record to answer “out of wallet” questions that ask about monthly car loan and mortgage payments.
Documents that minors can access–such as Social Security cards and birth certificates–are easily falsified, especially in the online environment. And there are no effective methods for verifying that a person whom a user designates as his or her parent is in fact the parent.
While MySpace, Facebook, and other large U.S.-based sites might come under the jurisdiction of domestic legislation, offshore sites won’t. Children looking for such sites will be unprotected. “That may lead them to some truly dark alleys of the Internet,” said Thierer.
Workable online safety, Thierer said, requires a combination of education, empowerment, and vigorous enforcement of current laws against child predation and sexual abuse. Although he admits some online protection mechanisms, such as software filters and parental controls, can be cumbersome, they are getting easier.
Thierer noted parental education and involvement will produce more effective results in the long run than regulatory solutions. Citing an analogy made by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh in another context, Thierer said lawmakers can write various regulations for backyard pools, including fences and gates, “but the best way to prevent an accident is to teach your child to swim.”
Online Dating Regs
Adult online safety is also a concern for state legislators. This spring, bills were introduced in Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey to regulate online dating sites.
The Florida bill, which would have required dating sites to disclose whether they conduct criminal background checks or screen their members, was withdrawn April 26 before a floor vote. The measure also would have required online dating services with members in Florida to provide online dating safety tips at the time of sign-up.
The decision to withdraw was made when it became apparent the bill would not make it through both chambers before the end of the 2007 session, according to a source close to the legislation. “That the bill made it to the floor of the House is an indication of the support it has,” the source said.
Far from instilling a false sense of security, the source said, the bill aims to strengthen the confidence users have in online dating while reminding them that online meet-ups are different from traditional face-to-face dating and social settings. “We know a lot of people use these sites and a lot of people have had great experiences with them,” the source said. “But there are a few bad apples out there.”
The Florida bill was originally introduced by Rep. Kevin C. Ambler (R-Tampa) in 2005 and since then has attracted several more co-sponsors. There has been no word on whether it will be re-introduced when the House reconvenes in March 2008.
In Illinois, a bill that would have required criminal background checks was rejected in committee. A New Jersey bill, which would require disclaimers warning users to be careful when interacting with a potential date, was referred to committee.
The criminal background screening provisions of these bills have been controversial. One online dating service, True.com, has been a vocal advocate for mandating criminal background check disclosures. It’s the only company that screens all of its members for felonies.
Opponents have attempted to show the criminal screenings defined in the law are inadequate and hence would provide users with a false sense of security. They also cite identity verification as a problem. True.com’s screening, for example, looks only for felonies and is based only on the person’s given name and birth date.
Policymakers and law enforcement officials have focused their efforts on prosecution of online predators under existing laws and ensuring adequate punishment for the crimes. Florida and Illinois recently increased penalties for sex offenders in general. In April, Florida also passed an online solicitation law that criminalizes meeting a minor in person for purposes of sex after having met online.
This spring Kentucky and Virginia adopted laws requiring sex offenders to provide their email addresses along with other personal information. The measure creates a registry that would allow social networking sites to screen for the email addresses and remove offenders from their sites. Arizona has such a law as well.
A national bill introduced in February by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) would create a registry of known criminal offenders and make it optional for online dating companies to use the registry to screen customers. For companies using the registry, the law would give immunity for rejecting people from the site.
New York and Virginia now have laws that oblige school districts to implement online safety training in their curricula.
Braden Cox ([email protected]) is research and policy counsel for the Association for Competitive Technology. Steven Titch contributed to this article.
For more information …
Florida Internet Predator Awareness Act, http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Documents/loaddoc.aspx?FileName=_h0531c1.doc&DocumentType=Bill&BillNumber=0531&Session=2007