Age verification doesn’t solve all problems

The Task Force convened by 49 attorneys general examines age verification, but what would it really accomplish?

by Larry Magid

ConnectSafety.org is happy to be a member of a recently
formed Internet Safety Technical Task Force, but it has caused us to
feel a bit of a disconnect. One of the major goals of the task force is
to explore whether it’s possible to use technology to verify the age of
people signing up for social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace
to give parents more control over whether their kids can use these
services and to avoid inappropriate online contact between kids and
adults. Yet, at its first full meeting on April 30th, the experts who
addressed the task force painted a picture that causes me to wonder if
such technology would be helpful even if it could be employed.

The task force was formed in February as a result of an agreement
between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general. The group consists of
representatives of major Internet and social-networking services
including MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, AOL, Google and Yahoo, along with
officials from companies that offer age- and identity-verification
technology. Several non-profit organizations are also represented,
including ConnectSafely.org, which I co-founded with Anne Collier.
(Disclosure: ConnectSafely receives financial support from several
social-networking companies.)

The task force is a welcome intervention into what has been a nasty
war of words. For the past couple of years, several attorneys general,
lead by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Roy Cooper of North
Carolina, have been hammering at MySpace and other social-networking sites
because of the perceived danger of predators using the sites to contact
children.

But that’s not what the task force heard from a panel of experts
who actually know something about how kids can be harmed online. At its
meeting in Washington on Wednesday, members heard from researchers
Michelle Ybarra, from Internet Solutions for Kids; Janis Wolak, from
the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research
Center; Amanda Lenhart, from the Pew Internet & American Life
Project; and Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Information
at the University of California-Berkeley and a fellow at Harvard Law
School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the task force's host.


Larry Magid talks about social networking safety on KCBS radio with Jane McMillan and Ed Cavagnaro


Drawing
from several surveys and studies, all of the researchers said the risk
of a child being forced into sex from an online predator is almost
non-existent. And in the relatively few cases where a youth does engage
in sex with someone they first met online, both the meetings and the
sex are usually voluntary.

That doesn’t excuse the adult – having sex with someone under the
age of consent is rightfully a serious crime. Youth, says Wolak,
typically have “little experience with romance and intimacy" and “less
ability to negotiate with partners about sexual activity.”

But as part of what we need to know to better protect kids, it’s
important to realize that deception is rarely involved. Most teens are
aware of the approximate age and intentions of the adults who contact
them. Only 5 percent of the offenders pretend to be teens. In some
cases, the kids themselves are being aggressive and sexually suggestive
and pose in ways to make them look older than they are.

When unwanted sexual solicitations do occur, most youths deal with
them appropriately. Two-thirds of youths didn’t view the solicitations
as serious or threatening and “almost all youths handled unwanted
sexual solicitations easily and effectively,” according to data
reported by Wolak.

Researchers reiterated that the overwhelming majority of kids who
are sexually exploited are victims of people they know from the
off-line world. And they pointed out that children have a far greater
chance of being harassed or “cyberbullied” by peers than by adults.
Nearly half of the cases of sexual solicitation were teen to teen.

To put Internet sex crimes into context, Wolak pointed out that, of
the 68,000 arrests in 2000 for sex crimes involving child victims, only
1,000 were Internet-related. And in half of those cases, the victims
knew the perpetrators.

Please don’t interpret these findings as being soft on predators or
oblivious to the dangers on the Internet. Everyone in the room was
deeply committed to protecting kids from the very real harms that do
exist. But in the interest of safety it’s important not to confuse the
perceived risks with the likely ones. To do so would be like worrying
about some horrible but rare disease while failing to wear seat belts,
washing your hands and flossing your teeth.

The task force’s main mandate is to explore age-verification
technology that would make it a lot harder to claim you’re 14 when
you’re actually 12 or that you’re 17 when you’re really 40. Social
networks have age restrictions (typically kids have to be at least in
their teens) but they now rely on user-supplied birth dates.

Some attorneys general want to see the electronic equivalent of
showing an ID at the door. There are companies represented on the task
force with tools that might be able to accomplish this including
Aristotle, IDology and Sentinel Tech. But Sentinel Chief Executive John
Cardillo told me age- and identity-verification schemes typically rely
on credit reports and other data that is available for most adults,
but generally not for people under 17 (even driver's license information for minors 16+ isn't publicly available in all states). One could, in theory,
access school, birth or Social Security records, but for a variety of
good reasons these databases are off-limits to private entities. The fact that only American youth could be "carded" with this information and many social-networking sites have international user bases is beyond the scope of the discussion, unfortunately.

Though the task force has yet to hear from any age-verification
vendors, I’m keeping an open mind about the efficacy of the technology.
Yet, even if age verification is possible, I still need to be convinced
whether it’s desirable. I worry about some teens – including abuse
victims and youths questioning their sexual identity – being harmed
because they’re denied access to online support services that could
help them or even save their lives.

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