Blown To Bits

Protecting Children Online

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I am sitting in the meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force at the Harvard Law School, in Pound Hall. Meetings go on the rest of today and through noon tomorrow, and are free and open to the public. There are two separate issues: How can you tell if someone claiming to be a child (when registering for a Myspace account, for example) really is a child (rather than a child predator, for example). And how can you tell if someone claiming to be an adult really is an adult (rather than a 13-year-old boy, for example, trying to look at dirty pictures).

I find the level of interest and investment in these questions quite remarkable, in the absence of data showing that child predation is on the increase or that the number of young adolescents trying to satisfy their curiosity can be decreased. The session was kicked off with remarks from the Attorneys General of both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

And there is almost no acknowledgment of the social costs of heavy identity verification technologies — for example that children who want to learn whether it’s really true that you can’t get pregnant the first time, as they’ve been told by their social peers, will be discouraged from finding the truth on the Internet if their parents don’t want them to get it. It’s neither practical nor (I think) lawful to keep older children away from information they want to get, but that seems to be the way the world is moving. The AG of Connecticut put a grand challenge to the group: “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a way to make the Internet safe.” Sure — if you don’t mind restricting the free flow of lawful information between willing speakers and willing listeners.

A lot to think about here.

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