Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions by Adam Thierer (Progress & Freedom Foundation Progress on Point)

Abstract: At the heart of the debate over age verification requirements for social networking lie the same concerns that have motivated previous Internet regulatory initiatives: underage access to objectionable material and fears about child predators. However an 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. Moreover, collection and verification of the personal information of minors raises serious concerns of privacy and data protection. Logistical issues include access to documents minors would need for verification of identity and age, as well as documents which 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, which can be easily circumvented and could put undue burden and costs on schools. Even with these measures, popular networking sites may in turn be pushed offshore, out of reach of US laws. Policymakers should not present age verification mandates as a comprehensive solution that 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.

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