Age-Verification Crackdown Looms for Social Media

Critics Say Laws to Block Access to Sites a 'Political Solution, not a Safety Solution'

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CHICAGO ( -- Advocates of stricter identity-verification measures on social-networking sites got a boost last week when MySpace revealed it had deleted 29,000 registered sex offenders from its network, particularly in North Carolina, by far the furthest along of any state in attempting to legislate verification guidelines for social networks.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper
Photo: Chuck Burton

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper

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But critics say the North Carolina bill -- which requires minors to get parental permission to sign up -- illustrates the futility of trying to effectively verify who is online. "My son knows all my information, so there's nothing stopping him from signing on as me and giving himself permission to be on there," said Rick Lane, senior VP-government affairs for MySpace parent News Corp. "Verification is a political solution, not a safety solution."

The bill passed the North Carolina Senate by a 49-0 margin in May and figures to soon get a vote in the House. If it passes and Gov. Mike Easley decides to sign it, a lawsuit from one or all of the social networks -- and perhaps even from portals such as AOL, which has signaled its opposition -- is seen as inevitable.

Security questions
Providers have typically argued that adequate verification technology doesn't exist, and that imperfect verification would give minors a false sense of security.

While advocates such as North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper acknowledge that the technology is imperfect, they say the number of sex offenders already on MySpace makes not acting a worse option.

"It does give us more urgency," said Jay Chaudhuri, special counsel to Mr. Cooper. "It's illustrative of the potential harm that exists when you have predators mingling online with minors."

Mr. Chaudhuri said there are effective models of verification. He pointed to online tobacco sales in California, which require follow-up phone calls or postcards. He also cited the exhaustive methods used on most financial websites.

Negligible effect?
Some social-networking experts question whether gating online communities will do any harm. "I actually don't think it's something they should be afraid of," said Dave Gormley, chief product marketing officer for Tubes, which markets a tool that helps social-network users control who gets to view which information on their personal pages.

He said measures that increase privacy -- whether it's keeping personal information about a child from a potential predator or keeping weekend-in-Vegas photos from a would-be employer -- can enhance a user's experience on the site.
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