In the midst of heightened concern over online sexual predation, state lawmakers proposed a bill Wednesday that would require social networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook to verify users’ ages, acquire written parental consent to post minors’ profiles and allow parents access to their children’s pages.
According to the proposal, users must provide parental contact information and parents may be contacted for verification. But critics of the bill said the law would effectively make it impossible for minors to participate in online social networking.
Sites that fail to confirm users’ ages would face up to $5,000 in civil penalties per violation.
“Parents are rightfully concerned that the Internet ‘friends’ their children may be meeting and chatting with online could very well be sexual predators who use Web sites like MySpace as virtual stalking grounds,” State Rep. Leonard Greene said. “Most of these Web sites make only minimal efforts to ensure Web site users are who they say they are.”
But while Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and members of the state’s General Law Committee contend that the provision will protect underage users from dangerous adults and empower parents to influence their children, critics of the bill have emphasized the value of social networking and cautioned that the measure could force kids off the Internet. It could also restrict users’ abilities to communicate anonymously, in addition to putting children at risk by storing their information in databases, they said.
“I am very sympathetic to Blumenthal’s concerns here … serious things are happening,” said Parry Aftab, executive director of the online safety group WiredSafety. “But the cost of [age verification] is the privacy [and security] of our children and their access to an important technology. Kids will be locked out, and that’s unacceptable.”
The legislation comes on the coattails of a U.S. District Court hearing in Bridgeport, where a New Jersey man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for contacting, and later molesting, an 11-year-old girl. Sonny Szeto, 23, had used MySpace to set up the sexual encounter, which took place in the girl’s Connecticut home.
According to the Attorney General’s press statement, at least six alleged sexual assaults in Connecticut have been tied to MySpace in the last year, with dozens more occurring in other states. Ten to 20 states are considering legislation similar to Wednesday’s proposal, Blumenthal said.
Companies such as MySpace and Facebook are in continual talks with various lawmakers and campaign groups over how to increase Internet safety and have responded in the last few years with additional privacy and security technologies. But the collaboration seemed to hit a roadbump yesterday when MySpace openly disagreed with Blumenthal’s provision, calling it “well-intentioned,” but “not the answer.”
“The most effective means to protect teens online is through a combined approach involving features and tools to make our site safer, educating our users and their parents and working collaboratively with online safety organizations and companies,” MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in an e-mail. “We have and will continue to focus considerable resources on developing effective ways to make our site safer.“
In January, MySpace announced the summer release of its “Zephyr” program, which is designed to inform parents of the information listed on their child’s profile. The Web site also currently bars anyone under the age of 14 from registering, and 14- and 15-year-old users can only have limited public profiles. MySpace has also trained employees to detect inconsistencies, such as a “17-year-old” sending out invitations for an 11th birthday.
But even with such precautions in place, minors may still lie about their ages and create profiles. Many high school students say they fabricated their account ages in order to gain profile privileges, although the same students also said they no longer use MySpace and have since switched to Facebook, which they view as more protective.
“I know a lot of people who lied about their ages in order to join MySpace, it can easily be abused,” Hopkins School senior Becky Harper said. “A lot of kids put their contact info up, which is just asking for trouble. It just isn’t smart … I think that when you use Facebook or MySpace, you need to be very careful with what you put on your profiles and I think many kids lie in order to meet people, or appear ‘cooler’ or more appealing to others.”
Aftab said parental consent initiatives have been historically unsuccessful. She said after the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act became effective in 2000, outlining a Web site operator’s responsibilities toward protecting the personal information of children under 13, hundreds of under-13 social networking Web sites simply shut down because parents could not be bothered to give consent.
“If that deals with children under the age of 13, we could imagine that it could never work with kids 13 and older,” Aftab said. “To my knowledge there is no valid means of guaranteeing parental consent from the custodial parent.”
A social networking Web site will most likely lose the user entirely if parental consent is required to register, Aftab said. For a teenager who is having a hard time expressing herself to her peers or for a rape victim who wants to use an anonymous Web site to share her views or promote a cause, a personal page goes a long way, she said.
But even beyond the long-term impediments to self-confidence and communication, the age verification proposal calls into question the immediate feasibility of validating age and identity. When verifying the names of adults purchasing wine or pornography, many Web sites use credit cards, driver’s license records or land ownership records — identification that teenagers often cannot have until they are 18.
And while some private businesses such as IDology Inc. and Sentinel Tech Holding Corp. have compiled public records on adults that can be compared to submitted profile data, no databases on minors exist. Nor should they, Aftab said, because a single database of children could easily fall into the wrong hands.
Requiring students’ accademic records could jeopardize schools’ federal funding, Aftab said.
“[Age verification] won’t work,” Aftab said. “Plain and simple. As much as I wish there were a way that we could do age verification, it doesn’t exist now. As you deal with security and safety you always have the counterbalance of privacy and the security risks of having information made public that you don’t want made public.”
Currently, Xanga draws 40 million users and Facebook claims 17 million, both far behind the 100 million that MySpace attracts. And while about 30 percent of Facebook users are between the ages of 12 and 24, more than half of MySpace’s visitors are over 35. Reports also say that the average MySpace user age is increasing — if all its reported ages are taken at face value.