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Don't Blame the Internet

Children are no more at risk online than off, a study says.

Last year, after the social-networking site MySpace found that its members included some 29,000 registered sex offenders, the nation’s top state prosecutors demanded a technological fix, asking that the industry “explore and develop age and identity verification tools for social networking web sites.” But a new study concludes that such technologies are unlikely to thwart anonymous predators and that the threat facing children online is no worse than it is in the real world.

“Our review found too little evidence that any given technology or set of technologies, on their own, will improve safety for minors online to any significant degree,” says the report, written by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a group of 29 businesses, nonprofit organizations, academic groups, and technology companies that conducted the investigation with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, at the request of 49 state attorneys general. “Moreover, the Internet itself, the ways in which minors use it, and the communities in which they participate, all change constantly, and the available technologies are quickly evolving.”

While no single age-verification solution can solve the Internet’s problems, tools are available to those who choose to use them, and social-networking sites cooperate with law enforcement and actively root out reported problems, says John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor who led the effort. Some 40 technologies are already on the market, including age-verification products and Web filtering and blocking programs.

The Achilles’ heel of age-verification technologies is, of course, that they only work if people use them. A parent can enroll his child with services such as CheckMyAge.com, which creates an online age-verification credential. But for the service to be effective, the child must always use it and require that others he encounters online also possess such a credential.

The task force did not dismiss the risk posed by adult predators, but it says that bullying by peers is a bigger issue that requires responses from parents and schools as well as continued law-enforcement attention. Online risks to youth “are not radically different in nature or scope than the risks minors have long faced offline, and minors who are most at risk in the offline world continue to be most at risk online,” the report says. “Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most salient threats that minors face, both online and offline.”

Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, one of the prosecutors who had pushed for the study, gave it mixed reviews. “This report is a step forward in the fight to better protect children from predators and inappropriate content on social networking sites,” he said in a statement, but he added that “the report unfortunately downplays the threat of predators–in relying on research that is outdated or inadequate–and it fails to provide specific plans to implement technology in improving social networking safety.”

MySpace provided a written statement from its chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam: “MySpace fully supports the key conclusions of the report: that industry has done a great deal of technical innovation in the online safety arena, that the risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted, that there is no single technological solution to the problem of youth online safety and no single technology that fully addresses any specific risk minors face.”

MySpace now cross-references the names of its members against public lists of registered sex offenders, and when matches are found, it deletes the accounts. MySpace uses a national searchable database sold by Sentinel that contains information on the estimated 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. “These sex offenders have full access to the Internet, but not to MySpace where we use Sentinel SAFE to remove them from our site. We then provide this information to Attorneys General in all 50 states. MySpace has been a leader in implementing this technology,” the company says.

MySpace took further steps to make it more difficult for young and adult users to interact inappropriately. For example, members under 18 can no longer designate themselves as “swingers,” and the company placed a lock on the age setting to prevent adult users from switching their ages in order to have freer access to minors. The site also made it easier for members to report objectionable content and behavior. Other social-networking sites have taken similar steps.

The issue is extremely sensitive for the Internet industry. The Berkman report included responses from Microsoft, AOL, Facebook, MySpace, and Linden Lab (which runs the virtual world Second Life), as well as telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.

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