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Friday, October 26, 2007

Social networker age verification revisited

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 (e.g., see "Verifying kids' ages: Key question for parents"). But don't take it from us this time. The UK-based Financial Times has 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.

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 more on age verification, see a blog post from Adam Thierer of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, complete with a podcast he did with other experts on the issue. The FT also this week published a summary on where social-networking sites, attorneys general, and all the rest of are on all this.]

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