New PFF Study on Age Verification for Social Networking Sites

by on March 19, 2007

In anticipation of the Capitol Hill event I am hosting this Friday (“Age Verification for Social Networking Sites: Is It Possible? And Desirable?”), PFF has just released my new 35-page report on this issue: Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions.”

In my paper, I note that many state attorneys general (AGs) are threatening legal action against social networking sites unless those sites verify the age of all their users. Already, age verification proposals have been introduced in Connecticut, Georgia and North Carolina. More proposals are likely on the way. AGs and other policy makers argue that age verification is necessary to protect kids from cyber-predators and other online dangers.

This week I will be discussing various aspects of my report in a series of blog entries. Today I will just highlight the major conclusions of my study. Tomorrow I will discuss some of the major myths surrounding social networking and online child abuse. And later this week I will outline some of my reservations about leading age verification schemes.

The general conclusions of my paper are as follows:

I find that proposals to impose age verification mandates on social networking websites raise many sensitive questions with potentially profound implications for individual privacy and online freedom of speech and expression. That’s especially the case in light of the definitional ambiguities associated with “social networking.”

Protecting children from online dangers is a legitimate public policy concern, of course, but age verification would not necessarily solve the problem it is meant to address. Perfect age verification is likely impossible, and history has shown that no technological control is foolproof. Consequently, there is a very real danger that age verification regulations will create a false sense of security and encourage both children and parents to drop their guard. Worse yet, age verification mandates might create perverse incentives for children to evade online controls and might even encourage them to seek out offshore sites that are largely beyond the reach of domestic regulation or public pressure.

I argue that there are better ways to go about protecting our children within online environments. Parents and policy makers should embrace a
“3-E” solution: Empowerment, Education and Enforcement. Empowerment refers to the tools and methods available to parents to better monitor and control their children’s online behavior and activities. [See this post on parental empowerment tools.] Education refers to the need to industry, government and parents to do more to teach our children about online risks and proper online etiquette. [Read my recent report on online education here]. And enforcement refers to the need for legislators and law enforcement officials to do more to weed out and adequately prosecute the real bad guys looking to prey on our children.

But, as I’ll be noting in tomorrow’s post, much of the push for age verification of social networking sites is being driven by unfounded fears and irrational myths about the nature of social networking and the severity of online child abuse.

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