I'm putting the wraps on a big paper on the dangers of mandating age verification for social networking websites. One of the questions I ask in the study is exactly how broadly "social networking sites" will be defined for purposes of regulation? Will chat rooms, hobbyist sites, listservs, instant messaging, video sharing sites, online marketplaces or online multiplayer gaming sites qualify? If so, how will they be policed and how burdensome will age-verification mandates become for smaller sites? Finally, does the government currently have the resources to engage in such policing activities since almost all websites now have a social networking component? I explore these and other questions in my paper.
But now I have another type of site to add to list, and not one that I originally gave much consideration to: online newspapers. Over the weekend, the USA Today relaunched its website, not only to freshen up its look, but also to fundamentally change the ways the site works. According to the editors, the new features of the site will give readers the ability to:
* Scan other news sources directly on USATODAY.com;
* See how readers are reacting to stories;
* Recommend stories and comments to other readers;
* Comment directly on stories;
* Participate in discussion forums;
* Write reviews (of movies, music and more);
* Contribute photos;
* Better communicate with USA Today staff.
Other bloggers were quick to note that the newspaper is essentially trying to refashion itself as a social networking site. Some wonder whether a newspaper can really be a social networking site. Others point out that traditional newspaper readers may resist such changes for a variety of reasons. (Don Dodge points out that 92% of reader responses have been negative so far).
But let's ignore all that for a moment and get back to the question I posed in the title of my post: If USA Today is billing itself as a social networking site--or if others argue that it represents a social networking site--will the company be required to age-verify users before they visit the site?
Well, that depends on how the age verification regs would get written, of course. But one definition has already been suggested under the proposed "Deleting Online Predators Act" (DOPA), which would ban such sites in publicly funded schools and libraries. Under DOPA, "Commercial Social Networking Websites" are defined as any site that: "(a) allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users; and (b) offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, email, or instant messenger."
Keeping that definition in mind, let's check out some more material from the USA Today's "Quick Guide to New Features." Specifically, look at sections on this page about "personal spaces" and "avatars":
Personal space: When you become a member, we automatically establish a personal profile page. As you interact with the USA Today community, your comments, recommendations and other contributions are automatically appended to your page. Your profile page includes a place for you to upload photos, write a blog, and the ability to send messages to other users. These pages allow readers to get a better sense of the site's most active contributors.
Avatar: Every one of our pages features a spot just for you: up there in the right-hand corner. That's where you'll be notified of messages left by other readers. Make yourself at home. Upload a picture of yourself, a funny icon, or choose from our selection of ready-made avatars.
Sounds a heck of lot like a social networking site to me. And if it was defined as such by lawmakers, it could mean that (under DOPA) access to the USA Today would need to be banned in public schools and libraries and that everyone would need to be age-verified before they go on the new USA Today website in their own homes. Welcome to the world of unitended regulatory consequences!
>> "Social Networking Websites & Child Protection: Toward a Rational Dialogue," by Adam Thierer, Progress & Freedom Foundation Progress Snapshot 2.17, June 2006.
>> "Is MySpace the Government's Space?," by Adam Thierer, Progress & Freedom Foundation Progress Snapshot 2.16, June 2006.