Serious questions are being raised about how to control minors' access to online social networking sites. In an effort to forestall pre-emptive legal or legislative solutions, MySpace.com last month announced an agreement with 49 state attorneys general to convene a task force to investigate the issue and make recommendations.
Chief among the solutions the task force will explore are various age verification technologies. Such technologies are supposed to be nonblinking gatekeepers, automatically shutting off access to certain sites if the would-be user is underage, or keeping adults out of areas intended for minors.
Details of the task force were unveiled this week. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School will lead the effort, which includes many leading Internet companies and child safety experts. The organization that I lead, the Center for Democracy and Technology, will participate as well, albeit with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Age verification not only raises difficult technical questions, it raises a host of legal and policy questions that have sweeping implications for the future of the Internet and its millions of users worldwide. To be legitimate, the task force, which will make a final report at the end of the year, must not only ask if we can build age verification technology that works, but should we?
The first question that must be asked is, ,what is the problem that needs to be solved?, Is age verification intended as a response to public concerns about risks to children posed by online predators?,
While such predators are an important law enforcement concern, just last week the nation's leading academic researchers — to use their word — "debunked" the public's assumptions about online safety.
"Adolescents' use of popular social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, do not appear to increase their risk of being victimized by online predators," according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
The task force must put the hype aside and target the social problem in order to decide whether age verification technologies are or could be the most effective solution. Is the goal to prevent minors from using social networking sites? Is it to prevent adults from participating in sites aimed at minors? Is it to limit minors' access to content intended for adults, or to encourage them to value and protect their privacy?
Is the problem that social networking is somehow inherently dangerous to young people, warranting their wholesale exclusion? This seems unlikely in light of the role that social networking plays in offering a platform for creativity and self-expression, collaboration and community building.
Young people use social networking for more than just keeping in touch with their friends. They use the sites to organize support for political candidates, build support for favorite charities, and provide support to friends and family fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Or is it more simply that the generation that has grown up online has a cavalier attitude toward its own privacy and that of its peers, and little understanding of the potential consequences of posting the details of their lives in cyberspace?