USA Today, age verification, and the death of online anonymity

by on January 23, 2008 · 14 comments

The USA Today editorial board published a nasty piece today belittling’s recent efforts to implement more safeguards for its users. Despite the fact that MySpace made over 70 promises to the Attorneys General as part of the agreement–the entire agreement is summarized here–that’s still not good enough for the USA Today’s editorial board, which wants full-blown identity verification before anyone is allowed on a social networking site:

“Even in the absence of a perfect software solution, interim steps are possible. How about using databases of drivers’ licenses to cross-check ages? In more than 20 states, they are public records. The point is, more effective safeguards are needed now, …. MySpace [should be] moving faster to set up age and ID verifications, not just study them.”

Well, where do I begin? I get so frustrated when I see comments like this because it is abundantly clear to me that people don’t think things through when it comes to age verification. As I pointed out in my lengthy PFF report, “Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions,” age verification is extremely complicated, and it would be even more complicated in this case because public officials are demanding the age verification of minors as well as adults, which presents a wide array of special challenges and concerns.

What Age Verification Really Is: The Death of Online Anonymity
We need to begin by understanding what age verification really is. By definition, mandatory age verification represents an effort to make online anonymity a crime. In simple terms, citizens would be forced to “show their papers” at the door of every website or else run the risk of being denied access–simply because they do not want to surrender their name or age.

Think about what that means. It’s easy to take the benefits of online anonymity for granted. There are millions of people who comment anonymously on blogs like this one every day, or write anonymous book or product reviews on or eBay, or who just chat with others about various topics under the cloak of anonymity. It is a wonderful thing.

Of course, anonymity has some downsides. The downside of people speaking their minds freely is that, well, people will speak their minds freely! And, yes, on occasion, that means some people will talk smack and just generally be jerks while disguising their identities because don’t want to stand by their comments or be accountable for them. But that’s the cost of free expression. If you want to live in a free society and encourage a vibrant exchange of views, there will be times when that means we must defend the right of people to say incredibly silly or even insulting things.

And God knows there are plenty of silly and insulting things being said on social networking sites every second of the day. But there are also countless moments of joy and wonder, when people come together and communicate with each other, or share culture with others in incredibly creative and social-beneficial ways. And, again, a great deal of that communication or culture-sharing is done in a completely anonymous fashion.

For example, as I have mentioned here before, I am fanatical about cars and home theater gadgets. I spend a lot of my free time hanging out at a small social networking site for fellow Lotus car lovers called Lotus Talk. And I also spend a fair amount of time at the amazing AVS Forum, which is the world’s biggest chat board for home theater and A/V stuff. On these sites, thousands of random strangers come into contact every day. We create profiles, we post pictures, we share stories, we talk about life and our passions for cars and A/V gadgets. This is very the essence of social networking. And, for the most past, we are all doing it anonymously. And it is happens everywhere online, every second of every day. Do we really want to make it all illegal?

Practical Considerations: The Complexities of Human Identification
OK, so there might be some downsides to making anonymity illegal online. But some critics would say: “So what, we need to make people show their papers at the door of every website–at least for those social networking sites where kids hang out–to make sure kids are safe online.” Well, that’s easier said than done.

At least in theory, the problem that age verification is supposed to solve is to keep older people away from youngsters, at least in certain circumstances. Also, some proponents wish to use age verification to ban preteen access to social networking sites. To accomplish either of those objectives, we must be able to effectively verify everyone’s age by consulting reliable records about those looking to create an account on a social networking site. In other words, when Janie Smith comes to a social networking site for the first time, the site must be able to verify not only that she is Janie Smith, but that she really is as old as she claims to be. But, again, such verifying is easier said than done.

Consider first what is required to verify an adult’s identity. When government officials or even corporations seek to verify someone identify or age, they can rely on birth certificates, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, military records, home mortgages, car loans, other credit records, or credit cards.

But even with all those pieces of information, challenges remain. Is the information publicly accessible or restricted by legal or other means? Are all the underlying pieces of information and documentation trustworthy, or have they been manipulated or misreported in some way? Has someone faked his or her identity? And so on. Thus, while the identity authentication systems–both public and private–have improved significantly in recent decades, they still face some inherent challenges and concerns about fraud.

The current concern about “identity theft” demonstrates the complexities and level of difficulty involved in stamping out this problem. Even U.S. passports, which are relatively robust identification documents that contain authentication data, are occasionally forged with success. “It is safe to assume that future age verification efforts will yield failures on par with other identification/authentication mechanisms,” says information security expert Jeff Schmidt, former CEO of Authis, Inc.: “When one considers how frequently college students successfully circumvent age verification requirements in person and with government issued documents, one can begin to grasp the challenges that lie ahead.”

Importantly, we’re talking just about adults here. When the focus of identity verification efforts shifts to minors, the endeavor becomes far more complicated. Minors don’t have home mortgages or car loans. They don’t have military records and most have never worked. Most don’t have driver’s licenses or credit cards either.

Of course, minors do have birth certificates, Social Security numbers, and school records, but both parents and government officials have long demanded that access to those records be tightly guarded. That’s for a very good reason: As a society, we take privacy seriously—especially the privacy of our children. Laws and regulations have been implemented that shield such records from public use, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and various state statutes.

Also, to the extent that age verification of adults works for some websites–online dating services, for example–it is important to realize that in most of those cases the users want to be verified. In that context, identify authentication increases marketability of a user’s “profile,” or it allows him or her to participate more actively in an environment where trust is essential. This fact makes it far more likely that age verification will work because user compliance is driven by market forces, not regulation. That compliance will not be the case when users–especially kids–inherently resist the idea of being age-verified before they go onto certain websites. (We should also not forget that some kids will share their online credentials or passwords with friends.)

It is also important to realize that age verification and background checks are not synonymous. Information security expert John J. Cardillo, President and CEO of Sentinel, a leading authentication firm, argues that:

Most people are ignorant of what we do. They hear the words “check” or “verification” and they assume a full background check will be run on the individual. When this is sponsored by an AG, the chief law enforcement officer of their state, there’s a perception that the criminal background checks are inclusive in whatever they’re proposing. Age verification, on its own, doesn’t indicate whether or not a person is a convicted sex offender. Mandated age verification, as proposed, would allow the hundreds of thousands of offenders… who are over 18, unrestricted access to sites. Worse, it would allow these offenders the ability to vouch for children that might or might not exist. This is where it gets most dangerous. People might assume that “verified” users have undergone some type of vetting, and let their guard down just that little bit the offenders need to exploit. In the case of convicted sex offenders, age verification actually helps them by giving them an additional layer of legitimacy.

This points to the danger of creating a false sense of security online by mandating a solution that doesn’t address the real problem.

Finally, the special challenges raised by the nature of the Internet and online communication must be reiterated. Finding a dependable source of identity or age information and then reliably matching it to someone thousands of miles away on the Internet (perhaps in another jurisdiction, or even another country) is a daunting challenge—made even more difficult by the fact that a remote individual may be actively attempting to subvert the age verification process. Solving this problem necessitates authentication data that are appropriate for online interaction. In the real world, we perform in-person authentication with a photo or physical description; the online world requires a username/password combination, biometric authenticator, or physical security token. An arms-race scenario is obviously at work here, and because a perfect solution is impossible, we must guard against a false sense of security. Lastly, because technology is evolving at such a rapid pace in this area, there is a risk that legislative solutions will become obsolete very rapidly.

In light of those complications, how would government, social networking sites, or anyone else, go about age-verifying minors online?

Do We Really Want National ID Cards for Kids?
In the extreme, government could demand that all minors be issued the equivalent of a domestic passport or a national ID card. After all, minors aged 14 to 17 are already required to obtain a passport before they travel overseas. Minors under 14 must have both parents or legal guardians appear together to vouch for the child when applying for a passport. Conceivably, government could simply extend this model to incorporate a domestic identification requirement. Once the youngster had been issued such a domestic passport, it could be requested by others—including social networking sites—as proof of age. Sites could cross-reference a government national ID database to verify identity.

Clearly, however, imposing such a solution domestically would raise serious privacy concerns because it would require the collection, retention and processing of sensitive information about children. Adults are not required to carry such a domestic passport or national ID card, so why should children? Indeed, all the same privacy concerns related to national ID cards for adults would be amplified with children because, as a society, we generally take extra precautions to protect the privacy of minors and their personal information. And a national ID card for kids would need to include a great deal of information about themselves to allow the card to be used by third parties online as an age-verifying tool. Government would need to issue an age-verified identity, user name, and password to every child.

Particularly concerning is the fact that a national ID card for children would require the creation of more government databases and bureaucracy. The potential for “mission creep” then enters the picture in that more tracking of children by government (and others) becomes possible. What other uses might there be for such information? We don’t know, and we probably don’t want to find out.

The costs of setting up and enforcing such a system would be substantial and must also be considered. Although the cost of digital storage continues to fall, we’re talking about potentially massive digital databases here. But the more important cost factor is the human time and effort that would go into to collecting, processing, and organizing such records and databases.

For those reasons, a government-issued ID card or age verification scheme for kids is a nonstarter. It would raise grave privacy concerns, induce public paranoia, probably encourage a great deal of evasion, and require significant government expenditure to enforce. Moreover, a national ID card would do little to prevent youngsters from visiting offshore sites.

Sources of Age Information
Thus, if social networking sites are going to age-verify minors, they will likely need to devise or rely on some other, nongovernmental solution. The most commonly proposed solutions typically fall into the following groupings:

(1) Credit cards as approximate age proxies;
(2) Driver’s licenses as approximate age proxies or as a source of date of birth;
(3) Birth certificates as a source of actual date of birth;
(4) Parents or guardians vouching for minors;
(5) Schools vouching for minors;
(6) Third parties vouching for minors; and,
(7) Biological or biometric determination of age.

I won’t summarize all them here since I do so in my longer PFF report on the issue. But let me just point out the deficiencies of the two leading proposals: Credits cards and parents vouching for children.

(1) Credit Cards as Approximate Age Proxies: Credit cards are often viewed by policy makers as the silver bullet solution for age verification. Even though credit card companies typically do not wish their cards to be used as age verification tools, government has advocated their use in that way in the past. But they are not a silver bullet.

“Mere possession of a credit card is not a reliable assertion of identity or age,” argues Jeff Schmidt. Credit cards can be a rough proxy for age on the assumption that only adults over the age of 18 have credit cards, but that assumption is false. Many minors are given credit cards by their parents. Youngsters can borrow or steal credit cards from their parents or others. And Schmidt notes that newly created stored value cards, specifically marketed for use by children, “are in many cases indistinguishable from actual credit cards—both in physical appearance and in the back-end transaction processing systems.” Sentinel’s John Cardillo points out additional reasons why credit cards are not effective age verification tools:

When a card is used for verification purposes, an authorization on that card is run for $1.00 (or less), however a charge isn’t put through. The card typically isn’t reconciled against any database for name and/or age, nor is a signature checked. Because of the insignificant dollar amount, the only thing that’s checked for security purposes, in some instances, is zip code. Anyone who’s ever bought gasoline with a credit card knows this to be true. Our names and ages aren’t checked at the pump. Check your statement online next time you gas up. You’ll see an authorization for $1.00 and the actual charge a few days later. The same merchant banks handle the transactions online. In other words, in most cases, all that’s being verified is that the card account isn’t closed or stolen. Who’s using it is irrelevant.

Moreover, “many parents may feel uncomfortable giving their credit card number online at children’s Web sites where there is no [commercial] transaction involved,” notes a coalition of major commercial organizations, including the American Advertising Federation, American Association of Advertising Agencies, Association of National Advertisers, The Direct Marketing Association, Inc., and Magazine Publishers of America. In a June 2005 filing to the Federal Trade Commission, those organizations noted that “in light of current online scams, heightened concerns about online security, and the rise of such practices as phishing, parents may be reluctant to provide credit card numbers absent a transaction.” But that begs the question: If lawmakers require social networking sites to process a financial transaction to age-verify, is that fair? In particular, is it fair for low-income families? And what about those families that do not possess a credit card?

Finally, the law is not even settled about using credit cards for access to adult-oriented websites. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was passed by Congress in 1998 in an effort to restrict minors’ access to adult-oriented websites. The measure provided an affirmative defense to prosecution if a website operator could show that it had made a good faith effort to restrict site access by requiring a credit card, adult personal identification number, or some other type of age-verifying certificate or technology. But the legislation was immediately challenged and has gone to the Supreme Court for review twice. And the law is still being debated in a lower court. Thus, almost 10 years after its initial passage, the legislation remains stuck in jurisprudential limbo after endless legal wrangling about its constitutionality.

Incidentally, COPA established an expert Commission on Online Child Protection to study methods for reducing access by minors to harmful material on the Internet. As part of its final report, the COPA commission said that credit card-based age verification would be completely inappropriate for instant messaging and chat, which were the precursors of social networking. The commission found: “This system’s limitations include the fact that some children have access to credit cards, and it is unclear how this system would apply to sites outside the U.S. It is not effective at blocking access to chat, newsgroups, or instant messaging.”

(2) Parents or Guardians Vouching for Minors: Legislation has been floated in a few states, such as North Carolina, that would make it illegal for a minor to maintain an account or webpage on a social networking site “without the permission of the minor’s parent or guardian and without providing such parent or guardian access to such profile web page.” Similar measures were recently introduced in North Carolina and Connecticut that would require social networking sites not only to obtain parental approval but also take steps to verify that they are the actual parents of the child.

This approach will appeal to many because it can be likened to a parent signing a “permission slip” for a child. Unfortunately, parental permission-based approaches are more complicated for online activities. Because websites are far away from the parents, how is the site operator going to ensure that the person vouching for the child’s age is really the parent or even an adult? Would the verifier mail or fax notarized documents? Those documents can be forged, of course. Mandatory follow-up phone calls would be cumbersome, costly, and potentially viewed as intrusive. And the use of credit cards to satisfy the permission requirement might raise some of the same problems already discussed above.

Despite these potential drawbacks, this was the general framework established by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, which required websites that marketed to children under the age of 13 to get “verifiable parental consent” before allowing children access to their sites. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for enforcing COPPA, adopted a sliding scale approach to obtaining parental consent. The sliding scale approach allows website operators to use a mix of the methods mentioned above to comply with the law, including print-and-fax forms, follow-up phone calls and e-mails, and credit card authorizations. The FTC also authorized four “safe harbor” programs operated by private companies that help website operators comply with COPPA.

In a recent report to Congress, the FTC said that no changes to COPPA were necessary at this time because it had “been effective in helping to protect the privacy and safety of young children online.” In discussing the effectiveness of the parental consent methods, however, the agency also said that “none of these mechanisms is foolproof” and that “age verification technologies have not kept pace with other developments, and are not currently available as a substitute for other screening mechanisms.” This seems to imply that the FTC does not regard COPPA’s parental consent methods as the equivalent of perfect age verification.

And the marketplace experience with COPPA so far reflects that conclusion. One of the problems associated with the current COPPA regime is that “Children quickly learned to lie about their age in order to gain access to the interactive features on their favorite sites,” notes Denise G. Tayloe, CEO of Privo, Inc., one of the four FTC-approved safe harbor programs. “As a result, databases have become tainted with inaccurate information and chaos seems to be king where COPPA is concerned,” she says. Parry Aftab of Wired Safety confirms this, noting that: “Preteens quickly learned that if they say they are under thirteen they will be prohibited from using many sites. So they regularly lie about their age everywhere online.”

Despite these flaws, Tayloe argues that COPPA serves an important role. Even though “there is no perfect solution” and it is not possible to completely “stop a child from lying and putting themselves at risk,” Tayloe believes that the law “provides a platform to educate parents and kids about privacy.” Of course, providing a platform to educate parents and kids about online privacy or safety is very important, but it is not necessarily synonymous with strict age verification.

Nonetheless, these permission-based verification schemes might work reasonably well for smaller, closed online communities in which the kids and parents are willing to take the time (and expense) to undertake extensive authentication. For example, smaller social networking sites such as,,, and have extremely strict enlistment policies, primarily because they target or allow younger users. As Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal explains:

The under-16 sites pose few of the hazards linked to networking sites for older people. The activities range from chats and blogging to creating virtual pets or characters and acting out roles in virtual cities. For a child to register, the sites typically require a parent’s email permission, a parental signature on a permission form, or a parent’s credit card verification. Some limit young children’s interchanges to drop down menus of preapproved words and phrases. Most filter content for inappropriate material and employ live adult monitors who ensure that kids’ conversations don’t stray off course. Some limit chats or blog access to participants who are already preapproved and already known to a child’s family.

Ironically, one can probably safely assume that the kids using such services are not in the high-risk group discussed earlier. The parents who use such services are probably doing a fine job of mentoring their kids and don’t really need to resort to such restrictive solutions. Nonetheless, such highly restrictive “walled garden” approaches do provide parents with greater ease of mind. That’s not necessarily because of the strict enlistment policies so much as the extreme limitations on what kids can do on those sites or with whom they can communicate while online.

But regardless of how well the above-mentioned parental consent schemes work in practice for these smaller, more closed online communities–and some experts, like Cardillo, do question how well they actually work–such solutions lack scalability. Schemes that demand laborious and expensive enrollment requirements, or that greatly limit functionality and interactivity after users sign up, will almost certainly not work for larger social networking sites with a massive community of users. The administrative burdens would be significant for both site operators and parents alike. For example, Parry Aftab notes that COPPA has made it much more difficult for some smaller website operators to staff afloat. “The cost of obtaining verifiable parental consent for interactive communications is very high, estimated at more than $45 per child, and even at that price [consent is] difficult to obtain.”

And because users would sacrifice a great deal of autonomy and functionality once online, many would likely rebel against the system or would seek to subvert it in some fashion. If such a system significantly slows or impedes the creation of new accounts for domestic social networking sites, it will create a perverse incentive for kids to seek other sites with less-restrictive policies, including offshore sites.

There are many other issues I haven’t mentioned here that deserve consideration. I’ll just check off a few:

* Assuming we go through with this, who is aggregating all this data? Who has access to the databases? How might that data be used?

* Is all this constitutional? Won’t there be First Amendment or privacy cases brought that endlessly complicate implementation?

* Will kids just flock off-shore to unregulated sites in an effort to reclaim some of the independence they have lost through by surrendering anonymity on U.S.-based sites? What are the consequences of that? Do parents or American policymakers really have any leverage over shady websites operators in Antigua?

* Aren’t there better ways to use our resources? How about focusing our time, energy and resources on educating kids about online risks and deal with these concerns in more constructive ways?

You get the point: Age verification is complicated. Insanely complicated. And it would have enormous costs and profound ramifications for the future of online speech and privacy. We must never forget that government regulation–no matter how well-intentioned–can often have such unintended consequences. It’s a lesson that the USA Today and many others need to heed before they flippantly suggest that age verification is a piece of cake and it’s just a matter of MySpace or someone else throwing a switch to magically make it happen.

Not. That. Simple.

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