Social networkers’ age verification

It just wouldn't work, according to experts and mounting evidence. Here's why.

by Anne Collier

Parents often ask us why on Earth social-networking sites can't just block teens altogether – verify their ages or something? After all, it's all over the US news media that attorneys general are calling for age verification. Well, we have been replying for months that it just wouldn't work (for example, see "Verifying kids' ages: Key question for parents," dated June 2006). But don't take it from us this time. The UK-based Financial Times recently ran an editorial on this saying the exact same thing. Why wouldn't it work? "The practical problems are considerable. Fourteen-year-olds do not have drivers’ licences and credit cards that can be checked via established agencies. The sites could insist on verifying the parents, but anyone who believes that a teenager will not 'borrow' his father’s Visa has never been 14 years old." Also, think about how hard it is accurately to verify kids' ages in person, at the door of a nightclub, much less over the anonymous Internet with no physical evidence or view of the person's face.

More important, think about what making ID info on everybody under 18 available to social-networking sites would require: a new national database of minors' identifying information…

* When there are federal privacy laws in place that bar even schools from publishing personal information about students (why they have to obtain parental permission to publish school directories)
* When the most attractive ID info to any ID thief is a minor's (because it's squeaky clean, with no flaws in the credit record!
* When adults' social security and credit card numbers sitting in so-called encrypted corporate and government databases on servers around the country are stolen by the tens of thousands and resold by hackers.

Do parents want their children's privacy to be that vulnerable?

And then what would the result be? "The consequences of successful age verification, meanwhile, would be even worse," the FT continues. "Minors would be driven off mainstream sites such as MySpace and Facebook and on to unaccountable offshore alternatives or the chaos of newsgroups," which we tell parents all the time – because kids are experts at finding workarounds. "There they would be far more vulnerable than on MySpace, which now makes efforts to keep tabs on its users." In other words, parents probably want their kids in sites that have customer service departments that actually respond to abuse reports and parents' complaints. MySpace has an email address just for parents (parentcare@myspace.com), as well as ones for educators and law enforcement.

For other views on age verification, see a blog post from Adam Thierer of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, linking to a podcast he did with other experts on the issue. The same week in October ('07), the FT also published a summary of where social-networking sites, attorneys general, and all the rest of are on all this.

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