The Achilles Heel of Social Networking Age Verification in the Tar Heel State

by on May 15, 2007

The morning after North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper
(and others) “asked” MySpace.com to hand over the names of sex offenders on its
site, what do I do? I testify in Raleigh about a social networking bill. Talk about entering the lion’s den!

This is the latest development in what is becoming an intense battle over social networking safety. And as I saw first hand in  North Carolina, state
legislators are happy to be on the record for any bill that purports to protect children, even if it means mandating age verification techniques that ultimately work against the children we’re trying to protect.

Update: a good overview of the hearing is an article in today’s Raleigh News & Observer newspaper.

I testified on SB 132, now under consideration in North Carolina that would, among other things, require social networking sites like MySpace to verify the ages of their members and facilitate parental consent and parental access to their children’s social networking pages.

At first glance these seem like reasonable proposals.
Unfortunately, they aren’t.

No piece of legislation, however well intended, can make it technically possible to determine someone’s real age
online. Minors do not have drivers licenses or other documents widely accepted for verification of identity and age. And there is no way to make sure that someone a user designates as their parent is in fact their parent.

Some may ask why signing on to a social networking site should be any different than buying lottery tickets or wine online. In fact, there is a big difference, physical presence. When you accept a wine delivery, the carrier
can easily verify your identity and age. Same for redeeming a winning lottery ticket. Signing on to a social networking site is obviously a whole lot different.

Other states that have considered age verification and parental consent have decided that while they may grab short term headlines, they are ineffective and unworkable in the long run. In fact, age
verification and parental consent requirements would actually make the Internet
less safe by giving unsuspecting parents a false sense of security.

Making the Internet safe for our kids requires education –
teaching online safety in school and requiring social networking sites to
make available safety educational materials. And it requires prevention –
increasing penalties for sex offenders, providing law enforcement with more
resources to track an capture online predators, and enforcing online
solicitation laws that already make it a criminal offense to meet a minor
in person who you already met online for purposes of sex.

Let’s hope that legislators in North Carolina will heed the experience of
other states, and stay away from unworkable age verification and parental
consent requirements.

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