Verifying age online doesn’t solve all problems

by mebelimebeliLarry Magid

I’m happy to be a member of a recently formed Internet Safety Technical Task Force, but it has caused me 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 networks 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 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.


CBS Technology analyst 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 accessible for most adults, but generally not available for people under 17. 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.

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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