Wendy Tanaka of Forbes penned a nice article this week on "Making Social Sites Safer," as in social networking sites. She interviews many members of the new Internet Safety Technical Task Force that is being chaired by John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Wendy was also kind enough to call me for some comments.
Wendy wanted to know how far technology could go to solve online safety concerns. Specifically, as she notes in her piece, "The discussions have centered on whether identity technologies can make social sites safer, or whether consumer education works best. State attorneys general believe more technological solutions are necessary, but some task force members contend that identity technologies on the market aren't adequate. And even if they were better, they likely can't prevent every unwanted incident and they could block contact between friends and relatives."
On that point, I told her that, even if the age verification technology worked as billed (and I have my doubts), we'd have other issues to grapple with:
"So, if he's 16 and she's 21, they shouldn't talk? Maybe they're brother and sister," says Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Thierer also says that too many checks and restrictions could turn off users and hamper advertising on social networks. "There's only so far the sites can go before undermining their business and cutting off their customer base," he says. "At some point, it becomes an annoyance for users."
What I meant by that is that there is a balance that must be struck between security and freedom on social networking sites because, if lawmakers (or even the site operators themselves) push too far and add too many layers of controls, their could be adverse consequences. In particular, users could flock elsewhere, including to offshore sites that have no
safety guidelines or mechanisms in place. That would be a troubling outcome that could leave site users far less safe in the long-run. As I have pointed out in my big paper, "Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions,
"Whatever their concerns are about current domestic sites, parents and policy makers should understand that those sites are generally more accountable and visible than offshore sites over which we have virtually no influence but that have the same reach as domestic sites."
Moreover, we need to be aware of the privacy and speech-related issues that arise when governments seek for force users to surrender the online anonymity. I have written more extensively about that issue in my essay here on "Age Verification and Death of Online Anonymity."
Finally, as I told Wendy, there is no substitute for education and awareness-building efforts as the real solution to these problems. "There are no easy technical fixes for complex human behavioral problems," I told her. "We need to teach kids 'Netiquette.' " That is, we need to do a better job teaching our kids proper online manners toward their peers while also making sure they understand what risks are out there and how best to deal with them.
Anyway, make sure to read Wendy's Forbes article for additional insights from other Task Force members.