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July 21, 2006

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Verifying online kids' ages: Key question for parents

"State attorneys general have called for [online] communities, particularly MySpace, to improve age and identity checks," the Associated Press reports in an article picked up by hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations, and news sites nationwide. What parents need to know is that the attorneys general are not just calling for tech safeguards. If they want verification of minors' ages, they're also calling for publicly available information on children, something that, up to this point, local, state, and federal US governments have worked hard at not allowing in order to protect kids' privacy, ID verification experts tell me.

No technology is going to protect online kids all by itself, including the age-verification kind. In this case, the simple reason is that technology is only part of the equation - it needs information in public records to check against. Info that authenticates people (proves they are who they say they are) is only available on adults - credit information, driver's licenses, voting records, property records, etc. There is no public information on minors available at the national level, and at the state level only a little more than half of the states make drivers' info publicly available. At a local level, schools keep records on kids under 16, but that information is kept private, and parents have to sign permission slips for student contact info to go into school directories. The $64k question is: How many parents want birth and residence records on their children in a national database?

Two factors beyond kids' privacy might also give parents pause: 1) The number of private corporate databases and networks that have been hacked into, exposing hundreds of thousands of adults to credit card fraud and identity theft, and 2) the attraction of children's records, the "cleanest" available (and thus easiest to manipulate), to ID thieves.

Here are two examples of kid-friendly social networks that work hard on Net safety without any new technology: and To join> (aimed at 9-to-13-year-olds), every child must be signed up by an adult with a credit card - even those signing up for the free account (credit card numbers are used to validate the registrant). It's not fail-safe, but even if a predator were to sign up a fictitious child with his credit card, he wouldn't be able to do much with that child's account except write his own blog (talk to himself, basically), because Imbee profiles aren't searchable, and no one can contact or become a friend of a child without going through the parent (via the email address s/he provides at sign up). is even safer. No child joins without written, on-paper approval by at least two adults. "The parent signs the child up and has to fax us a signed form to start the process," said Kaley Noonan, program manager for Zoey's Room, which gets a lot of its members through association with YWCAs. "I take that signed form and call a school that is listed on that form and verify the information with a school official or the director of the YWCA." If a parent doesn't sign the child up, the YWCA or school admin does the checking with all parents involved, she explained.

So, without a state or national public database of children's ID info, so far there has to be a geographical or physical-location element to rock-solid online age verification, and there have to be people involved, not just technology. Age verification still involves human validation. Technology can verify adult social networkers, but only those who register as adults. If an adult says he or she is a minor and doesn't give a real name, age verification tech won't be able to match that info to real-life ID records. The bottom line: Even if a law requiring age verification is passed, honest adults will get verified, but dishonest predators, an ID verification firm executive told me, will be able to register as kids and contact minors no less than before the law was passed.

Some combination of age verification and restrictions may well happen if state attorneys general put into effect the social-network regulations they're currently calling for. But regardless of whether regulation happens, parents will still need to know and participate in what their kids are up to online.

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Web News Briefs
  1. The Net's young 'storytellers'

    Not mid-career pithy political pundits, but young digital natives dominate the blogosphere, the latest Pew Internet & American Life study has found. "They're young. They're addicted to instant messaging and social networks. And they're more apt to dish about the drama at last night's party than the president's latest faux pas," says the Washington Post in its coverage of the study, "Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet's New Storytellers." More than half of bloggers (54%) are under 30, and they're a diverse group - "less likely to be white than the general Internet population," Pew says. Other findings: 55% blog under a pseudonym, 46% under their own name; 84% "describe their blog as either a 'hobby' or just 'something I do'; 52% blog "mostly for themselves," 32% "mostly for their audience; the main reasons for blogging are "creative expression" and "sharing personal experiences." Here's further coverage in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, and CNET.

  2. Candy + Coke = hot Web video

    Well, Diet Coke, anyway. This is a perfect example of the kind of subject that drives the people's Web these days, and you don't have to be an Einstein to conduct and record this scientific experiment. In other words, you can try this at home (tho' maybe not indoors): add Mentos mints to a bottle of Diet Coke and film the resulting geyser (e.g., in this video). Online law expert Michael Geist tells of a Diet Coke/Mentos success story in the Toronto Star, in which a more "sophisticated" such video involving "101 two-litre bottles of Diet Coke [and] 523 mentos," which - after "less than two months after it was first posted ... has attracted millions of Internet hits and ... nearly $30,000 in advertising revenue" for its two creators because of host site's ad-revenue-share policy (Mentos now sponsors the video; Coke doesn't). Meanwhile, more than 100 million videos a day are being viewed on, Reuters reports. Except there's just one problem: These video-sharing sites - e.g., VideoEgg, Video Bomb, Blinkx.TV, Blip.TV, Guba, Grouper, Frozen Hippo, Blennus, Eefoof and more than 200 others (according to Knowledge at Wharton) - are still trying to figure out how to make their own proportionate amount of money (see that POV at a San Jose Mercury News blog and the Los Angeles Times. Being No. 1 brings its own burdens: YouTube is being sued by a Los Angeles news service "for allowing its users to upload copyrighted video footage," The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. reports.

  3. Popular young YouTubers

    If you're curious about what the hottest young Web video producers are like, go to USATODAY, and meet Brooke Brodack, 20, of Woburn, Mass. (416,000+ YouTube views); Lital Mizel, 21, of Ramle, Israel (7.1 million+ views); and Justin Mazorlig, 20, of Alhambra, Calif. (2.8 million+ views). USATODAY writer Janet Kornblum briefly describes them and their work. As for the talent "pipeline" itself, YouTube, here's the main article. Meanwhile, all kinds of videos are hitting the Web - in much more narrow-interest sites than YouTube. For example, wedding videos are hosted by sites like,, and - see a different USATODAY piece on that niche.

  4. A look at sex-offender bans

    This isn't about technology per se, but sex-offender registries on the Web have had an impact on bans and residence-restriction laws considered in this in-depth article in the Boston Globe. The piece suggests that - though "the race to enact restrictions is gaining steam" - offender-free zones may have unintended consequences. The Globe cites a new law in Iowa - which has "some of the toughest sex offender laws in the country" - that banned sex offenders whose victims are minors from living within 2,000 feet of a school or licensed day-care provider. "The Des Moines Register reported that the number of sex offenders who had not registered with the state doubled from 142 to 298 between June 2005 and January. An informal group of prosecutors and police now opposes the law." The Globe cites a psychologist as saying that "the vast majority [of offenders] either know or are related to their victims" and they're unlikely to reoffend in their own neighborhood. A police chief told the Globe that, "while he supports tougher penalties for and better monitoring of sex offenders, he opposes residency requirements. For one thing, he said, they're "extremely difficult to enforce." Finally, the Globe cites a study by the city of Marlborough, Mass., finding that a bans on offenders within 2,500 feet of a school or day-care center would make "95% of the city off-limits to sex offenders," ostensibly sending offenders to nearby towns or states with fewer restrictions.

  5. Child porn study: US biggest source

    More than 50% of the child porn images reported to the UK's Internet Watch Foundation can be traced to the US, the BBC reports. The rest of the "Top 7" countries were Russia, Japan, Spain, Thailand, South Korea, and the UK. IWF investigations "found nearly 2,500 US sites containing illegal images. The IWF study also said that some sites that contain the illegal content remain accessible for up to five years despite being reported to relevant authorities." Top US Internet service providers are working with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children combating this problem (see "ISPs join child-porn fight"). Meanwhile, a change in British law will allow financial credit card companies there to cancel the accounts associated with cards used to buy child porn, CNET reports.

  6. Why so much porn online?

    Porn affiliates is a big part of the answer, the Wall Street Journal reports. They're easy-to-set-up small businesses that don't produce or sell pornography but rather operate multiple Web sites that display free porn images which link to porn retail sites in exchange for a percentage of the subscription sales they drive. More than porn retailers, these are also the kind of porn sites kids are mostly likely to stumble upon. "The lure of big bucks has saturated the Internet with affiliate sites - and, by extension, free porn," according to the Journal. "Now, there are so many free images and video clips that affiliate companies say it has grown more challenging to get users to sign up with pay sites." The Journal adds that "the fierce competition has led to something of a no-holds-barred atmosphere among some affiliates," resulting in huge porn-spam campaigns that have led to Federal Trade Commission lawsuits under the CAN-SPAM Act and other automated-distribution tactics. The number of affiliates is hard to come by, the Journal said, but they're all over the world, and the pay sites work hard to keep them happy, plying them with bonuses and gifts, such as the TAG Heuer watch just sent to an 18-year-old in Russia "who runs a handful of affiliate Web sites."

  7. Dating (or not) so publicly

    It's hard to break up quietly when you're a social networker. Suddenly all the world can see someone's no longer in one's Top 8! The Greensboro [N.C.] News & Record went in-depth this week on how social networking is changing social behavior. For example, social networkers now "categorize their romantic status via a drop-down menu. In addition to standards such as 'single' or 'in a relationship,' Facebook added an 'it's complicated' option a few months ago, and MySpace users can choose 'swinger.' Think you're in a committed relationship? Check Facebook to be sure. Changing your status from 'single' to 'in a relationship' is such a big deal that the process has spawned its own term - Facebook Official." The romantic status so many aspire to! As for the backdrop to all this - the impact of Web 2.0, the public record it basically provides on all of us, and its impact on US society - check out "Price of virtual living: Patience, privacy," a special report at CNN.

  8. RIAA suit against a mom dropped

    This was not widely reported but was the most eye-opening item in a group of recent file-sharing stories. A US federal court in Oklahoma City dismissed a recording industry lawsuit against the parent of a file-sharer "with prejudice," the "Recording Industry vs The People" blog reports. "Faced with the mother's motion for leave to file a summary judgment motion dismissing the case against her, and awarding her attorneys fees, the RIAA made its own motion for permission to withdraw its case" (the blog links to the lawsuit itself). Cases like this are usually settled out of court, with the parent paying the RIAA a fine. Meanwhile, "a Dutch appeals court has thwarted attempts by the Dutch anti-piracy organisation BREIN to get the identities of file-sharers from five ISPs," The Register reports. "The court found that the manner in which IP addresses [of file-sharers] were collected and processed by US company MediaSentry had no lawful basis under European privacy laws." And file-sharing groups in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are forming a pro-piracy alliance and lobby, according to The Register in a separate report.

  9. Parents' FAQ on social networking

    Stefanie Olsen, the writer of CNET's ongoing series on "Digital Kids," interviewed my co-director Larry Magid about safe social networking. The result, basically, is a FAQ ("frequently asked questions") and possibly a handy base for parents who are wisely beginning to ask their teens questions like, "Is there anybody you don't know in person (besides a favorite band) on your Friends list?" or "Who are the people who put comments in your blog most?" Parents of younger teens might consider establishing their own accounts in the services their kids use, and establishing a few rules like 1) they're on their kids' Friends lists, 2) only people your dad or I knows is on your Friends list or can comment in your profile or blog, 3) no responding to comments from people you don't know in person, and 4) no arrangements to meet offline with anyone you know only online (unless one of your parents goes with you).

  10. Teen-Webcam-biz sentencing

    One of the adults who aided Justin Berry's child pornography business was sentenced to 150 years n prison, the New York Times reports. "The man, Gregory J. Mitchel, 39, pleaded guilty in January to charges involving the sexual exploitation of boys and the operation of illegal Web sites. Mr. Mitchel was an administrator on several of the sites and admitted in his plea to producing and distributing child pornography." He was implicated by now 19-year-old Berry last September. The New York Times broke the story of Berry's Webcam business, started when he was 13, last December. As a result of the story, Berry testified about his experience before the US House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last April. [See "Kids & Webcams," "Results from Webcam kid going public," and "Webcams' darkside."]

  11. Email: So 20th-century

    The 14-year-olds we know don't do email. It's "so last millennium," the Associated Press reports - except maybe for the kind used on the social networks, the kind that works only with fellow MySpacers or Facebook users. Kids will establish email accounts so they can communicate with adults, but they probably don't check them often. They prefer IM-ing, texting, and communicating via Web sites that reflect their interests, whether it's skateboarding or music or communicating within a circle of friends. "For many young people, it's about choosing the best communication tool for the situation," according to the Post, including the time that's available for the communicating and whether they're just hanging out or have a specific objective like arranging the time and location of the next get-together.

  12. Malware over MySpace

    This is Internet logic: Within a week of HitWise's announcement that MySpace is the US's highest-traffic site we hear of a worm and a hijacked ad affecting millions of MySpacers' computers. The worm - the second one to hit MySpace, reportedly - won't hurt the family PC, but it's an annoyance and you'll probably impress MySpace users at your house if you know about it. The "Spaceflash" worm compromises the "About me" part of their profiles and infects visitors to their pages, CNET reports. "When a logged-in MySpace user goes to another member's 'About me' page affected by the ACTS.Spaceflash worm, they are quietly redirected to a URL that holds a malicious Macromedia Flash file," according to CNET. The file replaces the visitor's own 'About me' content. The solution is to delete a line of code from your "About me" box. Symantec says what that code is on this page. The second major annoyance was a banner ad for on MySpace and other sites that "used a Windows security flaw to infect more than a million users with spyware when people merely browsed the sites with unpatched versions of Windows Internet Explorer," the Washington Post's security blog reported. Users that keep their PCs patched and already had a security patch Microsoft sent out last January were unaffected.

  13. AOL's PC security for the home

    This is good news for us, bad news for Microsoft, McAfee, and Symantec. AOL is joining them in offering a complete PC care solution for home users, Internet News reports. Right now the beta version of the security suite, called "Total Care," is available free only to AOL users subscribers (, but its final version will be available by year's end for "an undisclosed price," according to Internet News. It will compete with Windows OneCare, Norton 360, and McAfee Falcon, distinguishing itself, AOL points out, with its "ladder of assistance": "Users needing help with a security problem can first turn to a free online tutorial, then move onto PC-based and telephone support.... If an answer cannot be found using the free options, Total Care offers in-home tech visits through an arrangement with Gurus2go."

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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