This morning in New York City, social networking website operator MySpace.com announced a major joint effort with 49 state Attorneys General aimed at better protecting children online. (Coverage at CNet, NYT and Forbes). At a joint press conference, MySpace and the AGs unveiled a â€œJoint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking Safetyâ€ involving expanded online safety tools, improved education efforts, and law enforcement cooperation. They also agreed to create an industry-wide Internet Safety Technical Task Force to study online safety tools, including a review of online identity authentication technology.
Generally speaking, the agreement is step forward for online safety. Indeed, many of the principles in the agreement could form a potential model â€œcode of conductâ€ that other social networking sites could adopt. In a report I authored for the Progress & Freedom Foundation in August 2006, I argued that it was vital for companies and trade associations to take steps such as this to avoid the specter of government regulation or censorship:
All companies doing business onlineâ€¦ must show policymakers and the general public that they are serious about addressing [online safety] concerns. If companies and trade associations do not step up to the plate and meet this challenge soonâ€”and in a collective fashionâ€”calls will only grow louder for increased government regulation of online speech and activities. What is needed is a voluntary code of conduct for companies doing business online. This code of conduct, or set of industry â€œbest practices,â€ would be based on a straight-forward set of principles and policies that could be universally adopted by [a] wide variety of operators...
In particular, this code of conduct proposal called for companies to make specific pledges regarding improved online safety tools, expanded education / media literacy efforts, and ongoing assistance to law enforcement regarding investigations of online crimes.
MySpace responded to this challenge in impressive fashion with its announcement today. The agreement touched upon all of those elements and included the following â€œPrinciples of Social Networkingâ€ (as described in a MySpace press release):
* Site Design and Functionality: The Principles incorporate safety initiatives that MySpace has already implemented and initiatives it will work to implement in the coming months. Examples of safety features MySpace has in place include reviewing every image and video uploaded to the site, reviewing the content of Groups, making the profiles of 14 and 15 year old users automatically private and protecting them from being contacted by adults that they donâ€™t already know in the physical world, and deleting registered sex offenders from MySpace. Examples of improvements MySpace will make include defaulting 16 and 17 year old usersâ€™ profiles to private and strengthening the technology that enforces the siteâ€™s minimum age of 14.
* Education and Tools for Parents, Educators and Children. The Principles acknowledge that MySpace has already been devoting meaningful resources to Internet safety education including a new online safety public service announcement targeted at parents and free parental software that is under development. MySpace will explore the establishment of a childrenâ€™s email registry that will empower parents to prevent their children from having access to MySpace or any other social networking site. In addition, under the Principles MySpace will increase its communications with consumers who report a complaint about inappropriate content or activity on the site.
* Law Enforcement Cooperation. The Attorneys General view MySpaceâ€™s cooperation with law enforcement, which includes a 24-hour hotline, to be a model for the industry. The parties will continue to work together to enhance the ability of law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute Internet crimes.
* Online Safety Task Force. As part of the Principles, MySpace will organize, with the support of the Attorneys General, an industry-wide Internet Safety Technical Task Force to develop online safety tools, including a review of identity authentication tools. While existing age verification and identity products are not an effective safety tool for social networking sites, the Task Force will explore all new technologies that can help make users more safe and secure including age verification. The Task Force will include Internet businesses, identity authentication experts, non-profit organizations, academics and technology companies.
The agreement then goes onâ€”in the form of two appendicesâ€”to detail over 70 specific steps that MySpace will take to expand upon these principles. As part of the agreement, MySpace agreed to:
* Implement â€œage lockingâ€ for existing profiles such that members will be allowed to change their ages only once above or below the 18 year old threshold. Once changed across this threshold, under 18 members will be locked into the age they provided while 18 and older members will be able to make changes to their age as long as they remain above the 18 threshold. MySpace will implement â€œage lockingâ€ for new profiles such that under 18 members will be locked into the age they provide at sign-up while 18 and older members will be able to make changes to their age as long as they remain above the 18 threshold.
* Users able to restrict friend requests to only those who know their email address or last name. â€œFriend onlyâ€ group invite mandatory for 14 and 15 year olds. â€œFriend onlyâ€ group invite by default for 16 and 17 years olds. Users under 18 can block all users over 18 from contacting them or viewing their profile. Users over 18 will be limited to search in the school section only for high school students graduating in the current or upcoming year. Users over 18 may designate their profiles as private to users under 18, and users under 18 may designate their profiles as private to users over 18.
* Change the default setting for 16-17 year oldsâ€™ profiles from â€œpublicâ€ to â€œprivateâ€ and create a closed high school section for users under 18. The â€œprivateâ€ profile of a 16/17 year old will be viewable only by his/her â€œfriendsâ€ and other students from that high school who have been vouched for by another such student. Students attending the same high school will be able to â€œBrowseâ€ for each other.
* Obtain a list of adult sites on an ongoing basis and sever all links to those sites from MySpace. They will also demand that adult entertainment industry performers set their profiles to block access to all under 18 users and remove all under 18 users from profiles of identified adult entertainment industry performers.
And that just scratches the surface. There is much more to the agreement. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how MySpace could have gone any further to satisfy the online safety concerns raised by AGs or other public policymakers. Indeed, some MySpace users will likely protest that some of the changes go too far. Thatâ€™s especially clear after reading some of the other technical details of the proposal included in the two appendices.
For example, in the technical appendix summarizing the design and functionality initiatives that MySpace has agreed to consider, they say they will pursue a new â€œchildrenâ€™s e-mail registryâ€:
[MySpace will] engage a third-party to build and host a registry of email addresses for children under 18. Parents would register their children if they did not want them to have access to MySpace or any other social networking site that uses the registry. A child whose information matches the registry would not be able to register for MySpace membership.
That proposal might raise some eyebrows since it is unclear how that registry would work and what, if any, privacy / security concerns it might raise. Of course, other critics will argue that such a system will be easily circumvented or tricked. After all, how does MySpace know that the person submitting an e-mail is childâ€™s real parent? And what about multiple e-mail accounts? Itâ€™s fairly easy to get a free e-mail account these days. But, if the system somehow did work as billed, it would raise serious questions about who has access to that e-mail registry and how secure the database was.
The agreement also contains a number of restrictions on access by minors to specific types of content, or to other users or groups on MySpace. Viewed in isolation, those restrictions seem fairly reasonableâ€”especially those dealing with access by minors to adult areas (ex: â€œswingersâ€ clubs or the â€œRomance and Relationship Forum and Groupsâ€). Taken together, however, the growing list of site restrictions might be viewed by many young users as an impediment to their social networking activities. Many parents and policymakers will like the sound of that, of course. But where might those users go if they are frustrated by the growing number of restrictions imposed on their online activities? This is indicative of the difficult position MySpace finds itself into today: They are piling on additional restrictions and safeguards in the name of online safety to satisfy the concerns raised by many parents and policymakers. But if these initiatives impose too many encumbrances on social networking activity and interactions it could undermine the very purpose of the site and its value to members.
This explains why MySpace is eager to get other social networking sites to adopt policies similar to those found in the agreement it struck with the AGs. Obviously, MySpace would prefer not be the only website stuck with these burdens. Moreover, it probably does not want other sites to have an unfair competitive advantage in terms of more lax operating restrictions. Of course, even if every domestic social networking site adopted stricter policies along the lines of what MySpace agreed to, there will always be offshore alternatives for youngsters to choose from. This is the tricky balance that complicates all debates about online child safety today: How do we create sensible online policies without encouraging kids to operate completely surreptitiously in a â€œdigital underground,â€ especially shady offshore environments?
Generally speaking, however, MySpace struck the right balance with most of the other proposals in the agreement with the AGs, especially considering the pressure they were under from some policymakers to go much further. In that regard, the agreement with the AGs is especially notable for what it does not include: age verification mandates. The call for an Internet Safety Technical Task Force to study online safety methods and identity authentication tools is a sensible alternative to the rush to mandate age verification, which some AGs have been advocating vociferously over the past two years.
Hopefully the task force will provide critical examination of the issue and not simply begin with pre-ordained conclusions about the wisdom or effectiveness of online age verification techniques and technologies. At the press conference announcing the agreement, however, Attorneys General Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut seemed to imply that that the goal of the task force would be to develop and implement a full-blown age verification system for the Internet. â€œWe are going to find and develop online identity authentication tools,â€ said AG Cooper. And AG Blumenthal reiterated an argument he made ad nauseum last year when he argued that, â€œif we can put a man on the moonâ€ then we ought to be able to verify the ages of people when they go online. [I first heard AG Blumenthal make this argument when I debated him and AG Cooper at a NCMEC conference two years ago. Here's the summary of my response that day.]
But itâ€™s just not that simple. As I argued in a lengthy PFF study last year entitled, â€œSocial Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions,â€ there are no silver bullet age verifications solutions. Online authentication is a complicated, multi-faceted technical issue. And, even assuming we could find a way to make it work, there are many other considerations that must be taken into account, such as the burden it might impose on freedom of speech or individual privacy.
The danger, therefore, is that the AGs have preconceived notions about the wisdom and efficacy of age verification mandates, and that they will either seek to stack the deck on the task force with age verification advocates or pressure the task force to adopt mandatory age verification without thoroughly studying the issue. Again, that would be a serious mistake and it would also likely give rise to legal challenges.
Education & Empowerment
The better approach is to focus on other steps that actually will keep kids safe online. As I have argued in my book on Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, the best solution to online safety concerns is what I call the â€œ3-E Solution: which stands for â€œeducation, empowerment, and enforcement.â€
Luckily, thereâ€™s a great deal of that included in the MySpace agreement with the AGs. MySpace has pledged to â€œcontinue to dedicate meaningful resources to convey information to help parents and educators protect children and help younger users enjoy a safer experience on MySpace.â€ In particular, MySpace will â€œengage in public service announcements, develop free parental monitoring software, and explore the establishment of a childrenâ€™s email registry.â€
The importance of education initiatives cannot be overstated. Technical solutions, such as those the AGs clearly favor, will always suffer from inherent limitations and will often be circumvented. Education, by contrast, lasts a lifetime. We need to be teaching our kids how to be good cyber-citizens and how to identify and report legitimate online threats (predators, bullies, scam artists, etc). It is my belief that todayâ€™s youth are far more savvy and sensible about these threats than most adults or policymakers give them credit for. Nonetheless, it is important to be vigilant about online safety education and etiquette in an attempt to teach kidsâ€”especially more â€œat-riskâ€ youth who might be susceptible to online threatsâ€”basic life lessons about sensible cyberspace behavior and interactions.
Despite the handful of concerns raised above, the MySpace agreement serves as a model for what other social networking companies and online operators could do if they wanted to get more serious about promoting Internet safety. MySpace has done about all it can to be responsive to the demands of parents and policymakers.
Of course, it could be true that no matter how much the company does to improve parental control tools or educate the public, some parents may never take advantage of those tools or information. This remains one of the great mysteries of the parental controls debate: Why is it that so many parents say they want more and better controls and strategies, but when they are made available many of them choose not to use them?
Regardless, if for whatever reason, parents are not taking advantage of these tools and options, their inaction should not be used to justify government regulation as a surrogate for household choice / parental responsibility. Parents have been empowered. It is now their responsibility to take advantage of the tools and controls at their disposal to determine what is acceptable in their homes and in the lives of their children.
MySpace should be applauded for its new statement of principles and its impressive efforts to empower and educate both parents and children about online safety while assisting law enforcement when necessary to root out the real bad guys lurking online.