PFF Senior Fellow Adam Thierer wrote the book on online child protection, so who better to give insight on today's long-awaited MySpace/Attorney General agreement to create protections for kids using the News Corp site.
And, no really, Adam did write the book. (You can download "Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods" here.)
Before we get to the Q&A, here is a brief overview/opinion of the agreement courtesy of NYT's Brad Stone:
Among the dozens of measures MySpace has agreed to take, the social network will let parents submit the e-mail addresses of their children, so the company can prevent anyone from using that address to set up a profile. It will also set the profiles of all 16 and 17-year-olds to private, so only their established online friends can visit their pages - essentially creating a “closed” section for users under age 18.
MySpace also promises to hire a contractor to identify and delete pornographic images on the site. And the company will take charge of an Internet safety technical task force to develop an age and identity verification tools for social networking sites.
Now, to Adam...
Q: Why is today’s AG/MySpace announcement significant? What about this tells you that this will be more substantive than the veritable “blue ribbon committee” that peaks at launch?
The agreement is significant because it represents a sensible step forward in terms of online safety. Indeed, many of the principles in the agreement could form a potential model “code of conduct” that other social networking sites could adopt. That is important because (a) it really could help keep kids safer online; and (b) it will help us avoid the specter of government regulation of the Internet and others forms of digital communication.
The agreement with the AGs is especially notable for what it does not include: age verification mandates. The call for an Internet Safety Technical Task Force to study online safety methods and identity authentication tools is a sensible alternative to the rush to mandate age verification, which some AGs have been advocating vociferously over the past two years.
Hopefully the task force will provide critical examination of the issue and not simply begin with pre-ordained conclusions about the wisdom or effectiveness of online age verification techniques and technologies. At the press conference announcing the agreement, however, Attorneys General Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut seemed to imply that that the goal of the task force would be to develop and implement a full-blown age verification system for the Internet. “We are going to find and develop online identity authentication tools,” said AG Cooper. And AG Blumenthal reiterated an argument he made ad nauseum last year that, “if we can put a man on the moon,” then we ought to be able to verify the ages of people before they go online.
But it’s just not that simple. As I argued in a lengthy PFF study last year entitled, “Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions,” there are no silver bullet age verifications solutions. Online authentication is a complicated, multi-faceted technical issue. And, even assuming we could find a way to make it work, there are many other considerations that must be taken into account, such as the burden it might impose of freedom of speech or individual privacy.
The danger, therefore, is that the AGs have a pre-ordained conclusion and that they will either stack the deck on the task force with age verification advocates or pressure the task force to adopt mandatory age verification without thoroughly studying the issue. Again, that would be a serious mistake and it would also likely give rise to legal challenges.
Q: What other companies are critical to making the Internet Safety Technical Task Force successful? And, as far as you know, was their consideration to having them involved prior to this announcement?
If the task force does go forward, it needs to be a balanced panel of experts and include other social networking players, such as Facebook. This shouldn’t just be a MySpace thing.
Q: While this obviously is targeted towards collaborations with state law enforcement, what do you think the DC impact will be of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force?
Some AGs have tried to get the federal government involved in the effort to regulate social networking sites, but so far nothing has come of that. Ironically, if anyone was going to take the lead in terms of social networking regulation, it should be the federal government—not the states—since the Internet is not a local medium or platform. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the AGs have wisely not pursued any formal legal action against MySpace thus far; they know it would likely be struck down as an unconstitutional burden on what is clearly interstate commerce.
Of course, the last thing I want is more federal Internet meddling and silly bills like the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) that are completely counter-productive. If the feds get involved at all, it should be in terms of education and awareness building about sensible online safety efforts and parental empowerment tools. They should adopt an “educate first” approach to the issue. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, to the extent they do get involved, they will once again take the “regulate first” approach.