According to Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal, social networking giant MySpace.com will soon be offering parents free monitoring software to help them keep tabs on their child's online activities.
"Parents who install the monitoring software on their home computers would be able to find out what name, age and location their children are using to represent themselves on MySpace. The software doesn't enable parents to read their child's e-mail or see the child's profile page and children would be alerted that their information was being shared. The program would continue to send updates about changes in the child's name, age and location, even when the child logs on from other computers."
MySpace is in a difficult position right now and I think this was a wise move. The company has been under intense pressure from lawmakers, especially state AGs, to take more steps to protect kids online. But it remains unclear whether this move will satisfy the AGs since they are more interested in forcing MySpace to age-verify all their users using public databases and then raising the minimum age of those who can use the site at all.
Last summer, I debated two of the AGs mentioned in the WSJ story -- Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper -- and explained why age verification is misguided and just won't work anyway:
"[T]here are no perfect solutions to the age-verification problem because, at root, it is a human verification problem. In order to firmly establish someone's identity many different pieces of information about that person are necessary. And with teenagers (especially under the age of 16), this is extraordinarily difficult. They are not voters. None of them have home mortgages or car loans. Many of them don't have a driver's license. Most of them are not in the military. Those are methods we use to identify adults that generally won't work for teens. Moreover, the few records we have on kids are well-guarded. For example, their school and health records are not publicly available. Same goes for their social security numbers.
In other words, unless you want to propose national ID cards for kids, we do not have an effective way to age-verify kids online. And credit cards cannot serve as a rough proxy of age ID in this case like they do in other online contexts because (a) most kids don't have credit cards; (b) even if kids had credit cards, they wouldn't need them to use social networking sites or services since they're not buying anything most of the time; and there's always the chance that if they wanted to get on social networking sites bad enough kids would find other ways to get credit card numbers and go online under false pretenses.
Thus, we have to accept that kids are going to be online and that we're not always going to be able to perfectly identify them when they are online. Consequently, we're going to have to redouble our efforts to teach our children basic rules of safety both online and offline and continually remind them to jealously guard their personal information and pictures, not to meet with up strangers in public places, and to always talk to Mom and Dad about their concerns or questions."
This is how MySpace's new monitoring tools can help. As Angwin notes, the new MySpace software "would put the burden on parents to monitor whether their children are lying about their ages." By empowering parents with free monitoring tools to keep tabs on their child's online activities, it provides a much less-restrictive, pro-parental responsibility solution to this problem. The new software "will give parents a tool to a force a discussion with their kid," argues Hemanshu Nigam, Chief Security Officer for MySpace. Age verification mandates, by comparison, would be far too intrusive and costly.
Of course, there is a good chance that many teens will object to having their parents engage in ANY monitoring of their online activities. As someone who was once quite a rebellious teen in my own right, I can appreciate this. But this is just part of growing up. Having parents look over your shoulder is certainly better than having the government look over your shoulder (or preventing you from getting on MySpace and other social networking sites at all).