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CONTACT: Amy Smorodin
March 21 , 2007
(202) 289-8928
Calls for Online Age Verification Misguided
Combination of Efforts Needed for Child Safety on Social Networking Sites

WASHINGTON D.C. - Age verification for social networking websites is not an effective solution to child safety concerns, explains Adam Thierer in "Social Networking & Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions." In the new Progress on Point released today by The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Thierer identifies privacy, constitutional and logistical issues with age verification mandates currently proposed in Congress and in state governments. He explains that a combination of efforts, including greater online safety education, should be implemented to protect children from child predators and objectionable content.

Thierer, PFF Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom explains in his paper that age verification requirement could have many unintended consequences involving privacy and First Amendment issues. Since most websites today contain some aspect of user interaction, lawmakers would have great difficulty in defining social networking sites when drafting legislation or mandates. An overly broad definition could have a chilling affect on free speech. Moreover, collection and verification of the personal information of minors raises serious concerns of privacy and data protection.

Age verification requirements for social networking sites also present a multitude of logistical issues. Minors do not have access to documents that are widely accepted for verification of identity and age, such as a driver's license. Documents minors do have access to, such as social security cards and birth certificates, could be easily falsified in the online environment. Using any sort of government issued identification for verification would require establishing a centralized database to coordination with websites, raising questions regarding who would control these databases. Other proposals suggest sites seek parental permission or contact a child's school for verification of age. Again, such measures can be easily circumvented and could put undue burden and costs on schools. Thierer also warns against creating verification schemes that are too cumbersome for the user and the site owner. Popular networking sites may be pushed offshore, out of reach of US laws.

Thierer explains that policymakers should not present age verification mandates as a comprehensive solution to parents to ensure their child's safety online.  This could provide a false sense of security for both parents and their minor children who use social networking websites.  Education and parental involvement still should play a vital role in keeping children safe online. Policymakers and law enforcement should also focus their efforts on the prosecution of online predators under existing laws and ensure adequate punishment for the crimes.

"Social Networking & Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions," is available on the PFF website.  The paper is a preview of issues to be discusses this Friday at "Age Verification for Social Networking Sites: Is It Possible? And Desirable?," a PFF Congressional seminar.  The event will be held on March 23rd from noon until 2:00 p.m. in room 2322 of the Rayburn House Office Building.  More information and online registration can be found here.  In upcoming months, Thierer will be releasing a Progress & Freedom Foundation Special Report on online child protection.  "Parental Controls & Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods," will be a comprehensive guide for parents and policymakers on available tools related online child safety.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.



The Progress & Freedom Foundation