Yesterday I spoke at a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference entitled “A Dialog on Social Networking Web Sites.” It featured dozens of industry, technology, law enforcement and government experts discussing how to protect children on social networking sites. I spoke on the final panel of the day on “The Public Policy Challenges of Social Networking” and was up against two state AGs: Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. They both favored various regulatory measures to address concerns about online safety, including a complete ban on anyone under the age of 16 on social networking websites.
My response follows.
“Social Networking Websites & Child Protection: Toward a Rational Dialogue” by Adam Thierer
[Based on remarks delivered at National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference, "Dialog on Social Networking Web Sites," June 22, 2006, Washington, D.C.]
The Beneficial Side of Social Networking
I want to begin by saying a few words about the beneficial side of social networking. What troubles me most about the current debate over social networking websites is that almost no one is talking about the beneficial side of social networking, and indeed the Internet as a whole, for children.
For the vast majority of civilization, humans have lived in a state of extreme information poverty. Today, by contrast, we are blessed to live in amazing times. An entire planet of ubiquitous, instantly accessible media and information is now at our fingertips. We are able to share culture and learn about other cultures in ways that were unthinkable even just 10 years ago. And social networking sites are one of the most exciting components of this new interactive, borderless world. Indeed, they are sort of the equivalent of “digital town squares” where citizens–including children–can gather and communicate with each other.
True, some bad guys might gather there too, but that is the case with every type of town square when you think about it. Thus, instead of only focusing on the negative, lawmakers need to acknowledge all of the wonderful things that happen on these sites too.
Enforcement Challenges, Part I: Internet Realities
But let me turn to some of the enforcement challenges lawmakers will face, and are likely ignoring, when they propose regulating social networking websites in an effort to protect children from online predators or other threats.
First, I hope policymakers understand that it will be impossible to censor or shut down social networking sites entirely. When you think about it, the entire Internet is really just one big social networking site. Any personal website can be a social networking site. Blogs are certainly social networking sites, too. Hobbyist sites, list-serves, bulletin boards and chat rooms are the oldest forms of social networking websites. But even e-mail and instant messaging are forms of social networking. And massive, multi-player online video games are quickly becoming one of the most popular forms of social networking.
Thus, social networking is everywhere; it is the Internet. What this means for purposes of our discussion here today is that there will always another site for the bad guys to flock to. Why, therefore, are we singling out social networking sites like MySpace.com and others? If we’re going to regulate them in the name of protecting children, then we’ll need to regulate a lot more Internet sites and online activity to adequately do the job. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick’s bill (H.R. 5319), for example, would ban social networking sites in schools and libraries. But what will that really accomplish if every other sort of social networking site and service is left unregulated?
Moreover, singling out online social networking sites and services strikes me as peculiar since we don’t also single out offline social networking sites for special regulations just because children might be at risk there. A lot of kids hang out at shopping malls, for example. And, unfortunately, we know that kids have been abducted in or near shopping malls in the past. But you don’t hear anybody proposing a ban on shopping centers or convenience stores to solve this problem. Such a proposal would strike most people as absurd; even outrageous. But, in essence, that’s what lawmakers are doing when they single out social networking websites for unique treatment or regulation.
Enforcement Challenges, Part II: Age-Verification
I want to also address the argument that social networking websites should just start age-verifying all their users to ensure better security or online safety. In reality, there are no perfect solutions to the age-verification problem because, at root, it is a human verification problem. In order to firmly establish someone’s identity many different pieces of information about that person are necessary.
And with teenagers (especially under the age of 16), this is extraordinarily difficult. They are not voters. None of them have home mortgages or car loans. Many of them don’t have a driver’s license. Most of them are not in the military. Those are methods we use to identify adults that generally won’t work for teens. Moreover, the few records we have on kids are well-guarded. For example, their school and health records are not publicly available. Same goes for their social security numbers.
In other words, unless you want to propose national ID cards for kids, we do not have an effective way to age-verify kids online. And credit cards cannot serve as a rough proxy of age ID in this case like they do in other online contexts because (a) most kids don’t have credit cards; (b) even if kids had credit cards, they wouldn’t need them to use social networking sites or services since they’re not buying anything most of the time; and (c) there’s always the chance that if they wanted to get on social networking sites bad enough kids would find other ways to get credit card numbers and go online under false pretenses.
Thus, we have to accept that kids are going to be online and that we’re not always going to be able to perfectly identify them when they are online. Consequently, we’re going to have to redouble our efforts to teach our children basic rules of safety both online and offline and continually remind them to jealously guard their personal information and pictures, not to meet with up strangers in public places, and to always talk to Mom and Dad about their concerns or questions.
Enforcement Challenges, Part III: Are We Addressing the Real Problem?
I want to conclude by asking a provocative question about protecting children from online predators: How much time, energy and resources are we putting into actually trying to track down the real bad guys as opposed to regulating websites? Regulating social networking strikes me as a massive misallocation of resources and attention.
Indeed, let me pose this question in this fashion: Is this a case of market failure or government failure? Consider this fact: A 2003 Department of Justice study reported that the average sentence for child molesters was approximately seven years and, on average, they were released after serving just three of those seven years.
Now let me just ask–no, let me scream it at the top of my lungs–WHY ARE THESE CREEPS WALKING THE STREETS? Why are we only putting people who viciously hurt innocent children behind bars for just seven years and then letting them out after just three? This is insane!
And this is what gets me so incensed about the current debate over social networking websites: Policymakers are fond of pointing fingers at everyone else and scolding them for not doing enough to protect children from predators, all the while conveniently ignoring their own policies that allow those predators to be on the streets and behind keyboards in the first place!
What’s even more troubling about this is that, after letting the child abusers out of jail, we then plow a lot of money and law enforcement resources into “community supervision” and “sex offender registries” to give us a better idea of where all the child molesters live in our neighborhoods. Well, I don’t want say that I speak for all parents out there but I bet I speak for a lot of them when I say the heck with all these “community supervision” programs and “sex offender registries” because I don’t want these scumbags on the streets and anywhere near my son or daughter! I find it very troubling that I have to go onto the sex offender registries and find all the convicted child molesters living in my neighborhood and then figure out how to keep my two kids away from them. Call me old fashioned but I wouldn’t mind the old “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” approach with these vermin who prey on our children. At a minimum, we ought to be considering sentences that are a heck of a lot longer that just seven years in which they let get out after doing just three years of hard time.
So, again, is it market failure when we hear that a bad guy is lurking online at a social networking site, or is it government failure? I would suggest it is government failure in the extreme because if those bad guys committed crimes before then they should probably still be sitting in a jail cell instead of in front of a keyboard trying to lure our children in.
And even if they haven’t committed a crime against children before, the government should be using its resources to find those who attempt to lure our children and see if they can catch them in a sting operation before they harm our children. Social networking websites will be happy to assist in that effort when a potentially threatening individual is identified or suspected. MySpace.com and other sites already have firm policies in place of working with law enforcement to identify threats and take action against them. After that, it’s up to law enforcement to do the right thing and put these predators away for a long, long time.
I would hope you would agree that this represents a superior approach to this problem compared to proposals to censor or regulate social networking websites because I really don’t believe that approach would do much to protect our children from online threats.