There is already a broad array of technology tools and techniques that parents can use to protect their children from unwanted content and contacts, and a variety of well-regarded Internet literacy programs to guide young people online. It is vital to assess how age verification for social networking would fit — if at all — into the existing landscape.
Beyond these critical threshold questions, there are a number of important specific questions that a task force must consider with regard to any age verification or authentication technology:
First, how effective is the technology, and how easy would it be to evade? And if a site invests in an age verification system, what prevents minors from simply moving to another site without such restrictions — a site perhaps out of the country and beyond the influence of the state attorneys general.
The costs of a new technology will have to be borne either by users or providers, so it's important to honestly assess whether the benefits are worth the costs.
Second, can age verification and identity technologies work, given the global reach of the Internet? Social networking sites attract users from around the world. If the verification depended on access to U.S. databases, such as state motor vehicle agencies, would sites effectively be forced to become "U.S.-only," or otherwise dependent on country-specific requirements?
Third, can we verify age or identity and still protect privacy? Would personal information about minors have to be submitted and maintained in large databases, or would Internet users have to have an authenticated identification card to go online?
Fourth, how do we preserve free speech rights if minors are excluded from social networking sites? Minors — especially older minors — have constitutional rights to communicate, even against the wishes of, or without the knowledge of, their parents. And if age verification becomes a legal mandate, would it pass constitutional muster?
Finally, and perhaps most critically, what effect would age verification and identification technologies have on the dynamic and innovative ways that people — minors and adults alike — interact with the Internet? What are the implications of building gatekeepers into the medium and diminishing the ability to remain anonymous? How would such a dramatic shift impact how people relate to and use the Internet? What would that shift mean for the future of the medium?
As the new task force begins its work, it should acknowledge that the scope of its investigation must not begin and end with a search for a workable age verification technology. The legal and policy issues raised by age verification must be considered as well.
Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.