MySpace: Coming of Age for Coming of Age

How will social networks balance safety and privacy? We're about to find out.

ByABC News
February 27, 2008, 4:44 PM

Feb. 28, 2008 — -- 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, 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?