Happy New Year! 10 days into it and I’m already behind on my resolution to post more frequently. Hopefully the quality and amount of information in this post will more than make up for it.
It seems that the topic of electronic age verification within social networks is being studied in the classroom of higher education. Three students from Arizona State University recently wrote an essay titled The Dangers of Myspace: What Should be Done to Protect American Children. One of the authors recently sent me a copy because of their references to IDology. Incidentally, the information they included was based mostly on their research within the market and not provided directly by us. I find it very refreshing that they were able to grasp how age verification works without a demonstration. And this essay does a great job of articulating the dangers and issues at hand straight from the mouth of babes, so to speak, since the authors are the ideal target age of a MySpace member.
For those of you interested, I have posted the essay (with the authors’ permission) below for you to read.
December 4, 2006 – The Dangers of Myspace: What Should be Done to Protect American Children
Authors: Kali Jarvis, Aaron Immel, and Nathan Hutcheson
Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” has opened the eyes of the public to the dangers of the virtual world. Chris Hansen, host of the program, describes the scene, “We set up a house where a young teen is supposed to be home alone. Like moths to a flame, potential sex predators can’t stay away. That is of course until they see me” (Hansen 1). An online watchdog group called Perverted-Justice has been posing as 13 and 14 year olds online. When the conversation becomes sexual, they invite the predators to the house. One such predator is Jaswinder Cheema. Cheema, sales manager for an electronic company, writes to the girl, “I could probably teach you a few things…like you know some positions and moves. See I like to make love” (Hansen 2). At the house, Hansen questions Cheema, “and how old are you?” (Hansen 4). Cheema replies, “I’m 20—actually 28? Yeah” (Hansen 4). He is actually 30 years old (Hansen 4).
Within the last decade, the Internet has become a principal means of communication. It is easier than it has ever been before to meet and communicate with people from all over the world. Recently social networking sites have become a popular way for youth and adults alike to meet new “friends”. Of the many networking sites available, Myspace is the most popular. Those who have Myspace accounts can post pictures, messages, and talk to friends. Although Myspace has been beneficial, Myspace has also become an aid for potential predators to lure youth through their own computer. Some have extended the freedom of speech to post explicit messages that are not appropriate for youth. One man who showed up at the “To Catch a Predator” house even posted a picture of his genitals for all to see, including young boys and girls. (Hansen ). Currently, Myspace has no way to protect the innocent youth from these images and sexual predators. At a conference for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), many “suggested age verification as a tool to make Myspace more safe” (Hoover 2). At this time, Myspace men like Cheema (and women) who are really 30 can claim to be 28, 20, or younger. Young girls and boys have complete access to potentially harmful men and women by claiming to be older. There is no way to verify the ages and information of account users. There needs to be an age verification system for Myspace users in order to add a measure of protection for the youth of America and hopefully save at least one child from the harmful dangers of the virtual world.
Certainly not all of Myspace users are potential sexual predators and criminals, but they do exist. Alison Hoover from the Washington Times stated, “Myspace is not completely safe from predators” (Hoover 2). Whenever one drives or rides a car the potential danger of an accident is always present. Even though most of the time an accident will not occur, safety precautions are set in place such as airbags and seatbelts. Just like airbags and seatbelts protect against possible car accidents, age verification for online Myspace accounts would act as a safety precaution. Just like all safety measures, the dangers would not disappear, but will decrease the number of incidents. American society has given much time, effort, and money into the protection of American children in the physical world, and the virtual world should not be different. Today’s children and youth not only need to be protected from the ills of the real world, but the world created by the Internet as well.
Currently, Myspace does have an age limit for users, but unfortunately there is no system in place to enforce this regulation. Users of all ages can lie about their age and gain access to accounts despite their true age. Youth who do not meet the age requirement should not be able to create accounts and essentially declare the age limit invalid and void. The age restrictions are in place for a reason. Youth who are under the age limit of 14, and even some 14 year olds, do not even recognize the danger. Children generally trust people and will believe what they are being told. Youth’s natural instinct to easily trust people is a very dangerous characteristic, especially online. The youth on Myspace also have a tendency to post personal information creating a dangerous situation. Although Myspace does have an age restriction it is a false sense of protection because there is “no mechanism for verifying that users submit their true age when registering” (Myspace: the dangers 1). Myspace instead relies on honesty when most users are dishonest to some extent. The Seattle Times states that “in an arena where most [Myspace] users are dishonest to some degree…the ones most likely to be honest are the potential victims: underage users who post detailed information, from the name of their school to their home address” (Myspace: the dangers 1). Underage users must be identified, along with all users who lie about their age, in order to add some mean of protection and hopefully prevent a tragedy.
Unfortunately, some have already experienced this tragedy. ABC Good Morning America reported a story about a girl who “ran away from home and flew half way around the world to rendezvous with a man that she’d met online, on the website Myspace.com” (ABC 1). The FBI found the girl in Jordan, on her way to Jericho amidst the violence of the West Bank to meet a man who met and lured her away through Myspace right in her own home. In today’s time, “stranger danger” has taken a whole new form. The report continues, “And so many families think this can’t happen to them…These sites feel safe because they are so familiar, everyone’s doing it, but as we see from this story, it can really lead to danger” (ABC 3). The truth is this can happen to anyone. Children, siblings, cousins, friends, nephews and nieces are all in danger. Lucky this girl was found before anything could happen to her, but others are not as lucky. In Texas, a woman and her daughter sued a man who allegedly sexually abused and raped the daughter, a man she met on Myspace. In order to protect these girls and others like them including boys an age verification system must be set in place. The lives of families everywhere are at stake.
Myspace itself has not been deaf to these complaints. In fact, that Texas incident led to a 30 million dollar lawsuit by the mother against Myspace. In response to this, the website attempted to appease critics by making some changes. Now, users over the age of 18 cannot request to be the friends of users under 18. Unfortunately this is not an effective change at all. It does nothing for the real problem. Since Myspace does not verify age, this action becomes complete void. This “solution” does not protect anyone and is nothing more than a publicity band-aid.
So what can be done to create an actual age verification system? Many things, including: using driver’s licenses, credit cards, and other online solutions. Some of these options are more effective then others, but they all have advantages and disadvantages. Using driver’s licenses to verify age would be very easy system for Myspace to implement. The large database includes many people making it easy for users to verify their identity and age. However, there are some negative aspects to using the driver licenses as verification. While the database is large, it is not all encompassing. Not all teens under age 18 have a license or even a driver’s permit. There is also a small chance that parents might not have a license either. Another disadvantage to the driver’s license system is its ties to Social Security numbers and many people are hesitant to give out that information. The final disadvantage is that a driver’s license is fairly easy to steal from a parent. Driver’s license verification does not guarantee that the person creating the profile is indeed the one using the diver’s license.
Credit cards could also be considered for verification. The first benefit to using credit cards as verification is simply the fact that you have to be 18 to get a credit card. Even if it is a student credit card, which are tied into the bank system, this is still an effective way to verify age. Another advantage is that most adults do have a credit card, or some other form of bank card. This makes verification very easy. However, as with the driver’s license there are negative aspects to a credit card system. First, along with social security information, people are unwilling to give out their credit card numbers, fearing it could be stolen and used for identity theft. As with driver’s licenses, credit cards are also easy to steal, making it hard to verify that the person entering the information is the card owner.
The last, and most effective solution, would be an online provider such as the company IDology, who provides online age verification. Many other sites have used them, including: adult sites, online wine retailers, online pharmaceutical retailers, and in addition to these, ZoeysRoom.com. The site ZoeysRoom can be seen as a parallel to Myspace. It is a site designed for girls aged 10-14 to chat and learn about math, science, and technology. As John Dancu, the president, CEO, and director of IDology said, “We provide age verification – identity and age verification for the parents who are signing up their children for the website” (Court, 156).
This is the type of system Myspace should implement for users under the age of 18. Obviously, a site designed for young girls needs effective age verification, and that is what IDology does best. IDology would be Myspace’s best choice for age verification. They take security very seriously, so users could feel at ease registering with their personal information. The company encrypts all the data they send through the databases they use, and do not sell or give out any information they receive. The system is also extremely fast. It would not be a hindrance to register for the site. They have access to over 10,000 databases, which cover about 450 million individuals. Running the user’s data through the databases, and returning the results (age is verified, or not) takes less then one second. Clearly IDology would be the best solution to verifying a user’s age and information on Myspace.
With a projected revenue of $200 million in 2006, Myspace would have no problem paying for IDology’s services…As Mr. Dancu says, this additional system “[. . .] gives you [the client] the ability to ask anywhere between three and five questions and the client can choose how many he would like to ask” (Court,180). Examples of questions used to verify the user are: past addresses, past counties lived it, people they know, and they even toss in fictional questions for extra security. ExpectID IQ generates the questions and turns them into multiple choice questions for the user to answer. The IDology ExpectID is an easy and effective solution for Myspace’s current lack of real age verification.
The Internet on a whole is a beneficial tool to spread information and communication. People, places, ideas, and information are only a click away. Unfortunately, the Internet is not free from danger and peril. Myspace offers one of the beauties of the Internet, nearly instant communication. By offering communication and social networking Myspace has gained millions of users and has created a whole new way of meeting people. Unfortunately, not all people use Myspace for simply communication. Myspace has become an avenue for sexual predators and has become a home for explicit material not appropriate for youth. Myspace needs to take measures to protect the youth that use it. Without effective age verification, Myspace will be another site that is detrimental to American youth. Without age verification and accountability on Myspace, predators will continue to take advantage of it, and children will continue to be at risk. American children deserve to be safe and be protected in the virtual world of the Internet.
Great job ya’ll. Hope the professor gave you an A.