Online Child Safety

Recent media attention has resurrected the notion that criminal background checks for online dating sites are helpful and should even be required by law. Sunday’s front page article in the New York Times described how companies selling background checks can “unmask Mr. or Ms. Wrong.” And today’s Good Morning America featured a segment called “Online Dating: Are you Flirting with a Felon?”

I was interviewed by both the Times and Good Morning America to say that these background checks are superficial, create a false sense of security, and that government should never mandate these for online dating sites. First of all, I should say that I’m personally involved in this issue. I met my wife on We didn’t screen each other, at least not for a criminal past. I remember doing a simple search on her screen name however, and for a while thinking she could be someone who she wasn’t, though.

But for fun, I did a postmortem background check on myself, just to see what my now wife would have seen. First, I went to Intelius and spent $58 (warning: there’s a constant barrage of confusing upsells) to see criminal, civil judgment, property, name, telephone and social networking data. The result: nothing harmful thankfully! But also nothing particularly helpful, either. And the report included a family member that isn’t, and left out my brother that is. Then I went to MyMatchChecker and ordered the basic level screening (the two most expansive products–“Getting Serious” and “All About Me”–require social security numbers, which I doubt most people will not learn about the other until they actually get married). The site made it easy to not include all relevant info, and I didn’t, so there’s a delay on my check. But let’s assume it’s all good too (ahem).

So would my wife have used the absence of a negative history to assume I was a good person? Well, she shouldn’t have. Although these criminal screenings can help in some situations, they still have some serious shortcomings. They result in false negatives when criminal records don’t appear or may not include felony arrests that were plead down to misdemeanors.

And these sort of criminal screenings are not very inclusive–at all. Continue reading →

At today’s FCC “Generation Mobile” forum — chock-full of online safety experts, company reps, Jane Lynch of the TV show Glee, and even Chairman Genachowski himself — it was the kids that made the show about mobile technology worthwhile. On a panel about generation mobile, here are a few of the statements we heard from high school kids:

  1. “Don’t just take the phone away.”
  2. “When parents snoop too much, it’s a privacy invasion.”
  3. “We’ll listen more if you present us with concrete evidence for behavioral restrictions.”

These are the kinds of arguments tech policy advocates make, only we would have said them in our unique brand of policy speak:

  1. Don’t regulate the technology, regulate bad behavior.
  2. Privacy is important and governments/companies must respect the privacy interests of their citizens/customers.
  3. Policymakers should collect sufficient data and analysis before introducing new legislation

Policy geek speak aside, here are some interesting facts we heard about teen use of mobile technology: Continue reading →

I’m still digesting the transcript from Tuesday’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the important First Amendment video game case, Schwarzenegger v. EMA. [Full transcript is here.]  I thought I would post just a couple of quick thoughts here. [Reminder: here is the amicus brief that Berin Szoka and I filed in the case, and here is some analysis of the case by Larry Downes.]

On Defining “Deviant Violence”

Much of the discussion during oral arguments was preoccupied with defining the contours of the term “deviant violence.”  I was pleased to see the Justices asking some sharp questions about the interpretation of that term for regulatory purposes. In particular, I enjoyed Justice Scalia’s remarks and questions to California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini, who argued the case on behalf of the state. Scalia said:

I am not just concerned with the vagueness. I am concerned with the vagueness, but I am concerned with the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. And it was always understood that the freedom of speech did not include obscenity. It has never been understood that the freedom of speech did not include portrayals of violence. You are asking us to create…  a whole new prohibition which the American people never — never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment.  They knew they were — you know, obscenity was — was bad, but — what’s next after violence? Drinking? Smoking? Movies that show smoking can’t be shown to children? Does — will that affect them? Of course, I suppose it will.  But is — is that — are — are we to sit day by day to decide what else will be made an exception from the First Amendment? Why — why is this particular exception okay, but the other ones that I just suggested are not okay? (p. 15-16)

Indeed, that’s what is at stake in this case: The beginning of a new class of exceptions to the First Amendment based upon concerns about children’s exposure to depictions of “excessive” or “deviant” violence.”  Once you open up this can of worms, the sky is likely the limit in terms of how far governments might go to regulate speech in the name of “protecting children.” Continue reading →

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Schwarzenegger v. EMA, a case that challenges California’s 2005 law banning the sale of “violent” video games to minors. The law has yet to take effect, as rulings by lower federal courts have found the law to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

There’s little doubt that banning the sale of nearly any content to adults violates the protections of Free Speech, including, as decided last year, video depictions of cruelty to animals.

But over the years the Court has ruled that minors do not stand equal to adults when it comes to the First Amendment. The Court has upheld restrictions on the speech of students in and out of the classroom, for example, in the interest of preserving order in public schools.

Continue reading →

Today I testified at a hearing by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley on commercial sexual exploitation and the Internet. When I first learned about it, I feared the worst: time to demonize the Internet. After all, the hearing announcement openly targeted Craigslist and websites generally. But this was not the case at all—as we heard, NGOs, law enforcement, and industry all have roles to play.

Instead of Internet-bashing, the hearing was a constructive dialogue. We learned why children are forced into prostitution and how classified ads on the Internet can promote this illegal activity. I was there to learn how we can help.

Commercial sexual exploitation is big business. Over 100,000 women are in the illegal sex trade. Often these women are actually teenage girls, vulnerable and with no place to go. Their lives are run by pimps, they cater to “johns,” and their lives are a living hell – except that these women become so desensitized that they eventually have no life at all.

These child prostitutes show up in advertisements for “escort services” or “adult services.” Traditionally, these ads were in the yellow pages. Now they exist on the Internet, and these listings can often be graphic. But it’s hard to tell whether these ads involve women against their will or underage girls. That’s why there are folks who would like to see all these ads disappear. And they’ll blame Internet classifieds—indeed, one witness called sites like Craigslist and Backpage “electronic pimps.”

Unfortunately, there are those that think it is better to force the shut down of the adult services section of these sites. But as we heard from danah boyd of Microsoft and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, merely shutting down the listed supply of adult services is superficial. Continue reading →

I’d like to recommend Sonia Arrison’s recent article on the need for updating the Electronic Privacy Communications Act (ECPA). She makes a good case why citizens should feel a bit worried about the ability of government to invade their privacy when they keep data in the cloud. And citizens are customers, so online businesses are worried if people may use less of their services. But here’s another angle for why we need to update ECPA…it’s to promote online safety. From an excellent analysis by Becky Burr, ECPA reform:

Would establish uniform, clear, and easily understood rules about when and what kind of judicial review is needed by law enforcement to access electronic content; and

Would, by clarifying the applicable rules, enable business to respond more quickly and with greater confidence to law enforcement requests and to avail themselves of hosted productivity technology.

Right now the law is muddled, and online services have a hard time determining legitimate requests from those that are overreaching. When the law is clarified, businesses and law enforcement can (with appropriate legal process) share information that can help find sexual predators and other online miscreants.

Up on the NetChoice blog, Steve DelBianco writes about how online child safety was a hot topic at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) last week in Lithuania. There was one workshop on location-based services that allow users to publish their mobile phone location info to their parents or social network pages (e.g. Foursquare, Loopt, and Facebook Places).

The entire workshop reminded Steve of the movie Minority Report, where a ‘precrime’ police unit relies on the visions of psychics to predict future crimes, then arrests the potential perpetrators before they do anything wrong:

In the world of Internet governance, the future is now, as regulators want online services to predict and prevent safety threats before they actually occur. According to some privacy advocates and lawmakers, the precrime problem here is that location data might be seen by someone with bad intentions.  In the name of protecting children, panelists here favor a policy framework that would require innovators to clear new location-based services with regulators before making them available to users.

Think of the irony with this regulatory approach. Lawmakers are not likely to predict all the ways that bad people can abuse a good service, and regulatory approvals are notoriously slow and inflexible.  On the other hand, Internet innovation is marked by rapid development of new services and quick reactions to fine-tune new features or fix unexpected problems.

Thankfully, there was a young person in the audience that actually knows how kids use the Internet and what will help them the most:

More sage advice came from young people – the anticipated victims of precrimes that might use location-based info. Joonas Makinen of the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance told the IGF, “It is better to focus on fighting ignorance and building digital literacy than applying safety strategies based on restriction.”


Back in March, the Motion Picture Association of America re-launched its film-rating website, While this may be old news to some, I just learned about it from a post on BoingBoing which makes fun of the rationales given for the ratings, which are available on the new website. Example: The movie “3 Ninjas Knuckle Up” was “rated PG-13 for non-stop ninja action.”

Continue reading →

Internet governance is often thought of as ICANN and domain names, but the Internet Governance Forum, a body of the UN, takes a broad approach. Tomorrow I’ll be speaking on a panel about online safety at IGF-USA,  a national body that reports to the full IGF.  We’ll discuss the recent NTIA OSTWG “Youth Safety on a Living Internet” report, among other online safety issues such as sexting, cyberbullying, and proposed state legislation.

UPDATE:  Here’s a summary and video excerpt of my presentation.

Here’s the panel:

Moderator: Danny Weitzner, Associate Administrator, Office of Policy Analysis and Development U.S. Department of Commerce


  • Michael W. McKeehan, Executive Director, Internet and Technology Policy, Verizon
  • Braden Cox, Policy Counsel, NetChoice Coalition
  • Anne Collier, via remote participation [Invited]
  • Jennifer Hanley, Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI)
  • Stacie Rumenap, Stop Child Predators


  • Morgan C. Little, Elon University Graduate, Political Science, American University
  • Jane Coffin, NTIA: comments on some of the global activities
  • Bessie Pang, Executive Director, POLCYB

Check it out and come for the other panels on cybersecurity, cloud computing and global governance for governments. Registration is free.