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Friday, November 21, 2008

Europe on age verification, social networking

As the Internet Safety Technical Task Force wraps up its year of studying potential tech solutions for youth risk on the social Web, some perspective from across the Atlantic seems timely. The ISTTF's report, which we worked on together this week as Task Force members, goes to the 49 attorneys general who formed the ISTTF at the end of the year. The European Commission last summer held a public consultation on social networking, age verification, and content rating "to gather the knowledge and views of all relevant stakeholders (including public bodies, child safety and consumer organisations, and industry)." More than 6 dozen entities responded (links to their individual comments are included here).

Reports on those stakeholders' 70+ comments were presented at the EC's Safer Internet Forum in September. Here are the EC's conclusions on social networking and age verification, two subjects of particular interest to the US's state attorneys general and the ISTTF (so I'm zooming in on these two):

1. Summary of European views on age verification

  • Bottom line: "There is no existing approach to Age Verification that is as effective as one could ideally hope for.”
  • Flaws a reality: “Each individual method carries its own flaws, as does any combination of methods used.”
  • "Universal" really means "universal": The effectiveness of age-verification systems already in place in the UK and Germany is "largely undermined by the availability of sites offering similar services” in countries where there is no age verification in place. It can only be effective if it is "universally accepted, inclusive, secure and relatively inexpensive."
  • Avoid false sense of security: "Concerns were also raised about the false sense of security that might be provided and the adverse effects on safety this might have."

    2. Conclusions from report on social networking

  • Significant consensus. "There was an important degree of consensus between respondents across most questions."
  • The peer-to-peer risk. "Bullying and other threats which young users inflict upon each other may be more likely to arise than threats from adults."
  • Communication not confrontation. "Parental involvement in their children's online activity is important, but principles of privacy and trust should dictate how parents help children to stay safe."
  • Education > regulation. "Education and awareness are the most important factors in enabling minors to keep themselves safe."
  • Industry self-regulation > legislation. "Industry self-regulation is the preferred approach for service providers to meet public expectations with regard to the safety of minors. Legislation should not place burdens on service providers which prevent them from providing minors with all the benefits of social networking.
  • Mandatory safety minimums maybe. "Available safety measures vary greatly from one provider to another and mandatory minimum levels of provision may need to be established."
  • More research needed. "Much is known about potential risks, but more research on the nature and extent of harm actually experienced by minors online is needed."

    Related links

  • From this week's US news: "Age verification: An attorney general's concern" in the New York Times and my blog post about it
  • "Age verification debate continues; Schools now at center of discussion" at Adam Thierer's tech policy blog

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