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Protecting Kids Online

A summary of state and federal efforts to shield kids from predators -- and from other kids.

MySpace Agrees to Toughen Age Controls

  • Related link
  • NetFamilyNews
    A blog covering "kid-tech news for parents" maintained by journalist Anne Collier. NetFamilyNews has posted a helpful summary of the recent agreement between MySpace and state attorneys general.
  • Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies
    This final report of the task force assembled by state attorneys general to study internet safety found that bullying and harrassment, not online predators, "are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline." (Dec. 31, 2008)

On Jan. 14, 2008, 49 state attorneys general announced an agreement with social networking giant MySpace to "better protect children on its Web site." The deal, which was the culmination of two years of talks and threatened litigation, is the latest effort by state and federal officials to tighten age and content restrictions online.

Under the terms of the agreement, MySpace agreed to:

  • create a task force to develop age and identity verification technology to keep underage kids off its site;
  • set up a registry of blocked e-mail addresses of minors, supplied by parents;
  • make the profiles of members ages 14-17 "private" by default, meaning they can be seen by friends only;
  • establish a "high school" section of the site for users under 18;
  • respond within 72 hours to complaints about inappropriate content; and
  • hire more staff to police such content as photos and discussion boards.

Greg Abbott of Texas was the only attorney general who didn't sign the agreement. He wrote in an open letter to MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe, "We do not believe that MySpace.com -- or any social-networking site -- can adequately protect minors until an age verification system is effectively developed and implemented."

Indeed, one Texas news outlet was able to create a new e-mail address and use that to make a MySpace account without any age or ID checks. "There was no effort to verify any of the information used in the process -- name, age, address," the San Antonio Express-News reported.

In an audio interview with CBS News' Larry Magid, Hemanshu Nigam, chief technology officer of MySpace parent Fox Interactive, agreed that there is "no current technology that allows anyone to identify underage individuals," but stressed that MySpace will be studying the issue under the new agreement. Nigam also said that MySpace has been in talks with other social networking companies about joining the deal.

Days after the MySpace deal was announced, Wired.com reported that a bug in MySpace's design "allows anyone who's interested to see the photographs of some users with private profiles -- including those under 16 -- despite assurances from MySpace that those pictures can only be seen by people on a user's friends list." MySpace fixed the problem the following day.

Federal Legislation

Congress has been taking steps to protect kids online for a decade. The 1998 Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires Web sites collecting personal information from children ages 13 and under to maintain privacy policies and seek parental consent. The law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has levied fines against violators, including a $1 million penalty against social networking site Xanga in 2006.

But laws protecting children from objectionable content online have been met with court challenges on free-speech grounds. Not to be confused with COPPA, the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA) aimed to restrict minors' access to online pornography. The law has never been enforced; a court issued an injunction against it immediately, and the act's constitutionality has been argued inconclusively in various federal courts since then.

Editor's Note: On Jan. 21, 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on the constitutionality of COPA, effectively killing the legislation after more than 10 years of legal battles. Critics of the law had argued that it was too broad and infringed on freedom of speech, and that filtering technologies offer individuals and parents the tools to protect minors.

The 2006 Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 would have required libraries receiving a particular federal subsidy to filter out social networking sites from their computers. The bill passed the House but stalled in a Senate committee. Critics argue the bill's definition of the social networking sites is so broad that it would also block blogs and online forums, many of which have educational uses.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying, considered by many experts to be as bad or worse a problem than online predators, has received more attention at the state level than in Congress. Following his son Ryan's 2003 suicide after being bullied at school and online, John Halligan pushed for anti-bullying legislation that became state law in Vermont the following year. The law makes bullying grounds for expulsion from school.

Bullypolice.org offers a rundown of anti-bullying laws in the 32 states that have them, and the National Council of State Legislatures lists eight states that have addressed cyberbullying specifically.

John Halligan told FRONTLINE he thinks removing kids' anonymity online would help control their bad behavior towards each other. "I think every time you log in to the Internet, you should be identified," he said.

But Parry Aftab, executive director of the Internet education group WiredSafety.org, disagrees. "Kids would be far more at risk if I have a huge database of every 13-year-old in this country that any hacker or pedophile group ... can break into," she told FRONTLINE.

Aftab also doubts that regulation can keep pace with the Internet. "Regulations are years behind the time," she said. "By the time we come up with a regulation that might work for today's technology, tomorrow's technology is out."

Instead, Aftab favors establishing best practices for Web sites and providing incentives for meeting them. The state attorneys general have expressed a similar goal, hoping that other social networking sites will sign onto their agreement with MySpace. Nonetheless, according to Aftab, no industry standard or law is a substitute for good parenting. "You can't regulate teaching parents to talk to their kids."

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posted january 22, 2008

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