Last week, a bunch of high-powered researchers issued a much-anticipated report on children's Internet safety. The Harvard University-led Internet Safety Technical Task Force concluded that technology ranging from age verification to filtering won't necessarily help make the Internet more safe for our darling tots. The results, while true, don't do much to allay most parents concerns.
Although the Internet is an integral part of most Americans everyday life, we as a society are still struggling to figure out how to navigate a world where every danger imaginable – from predators to porn to that infernal "Chocolate Rain" video – lurks mere mouse-clicks away from our children.
So it's disappointing to find out that the experts have decreed all of the options for a safer Internet to be fatally flawed. To find some constructive advice, I decided to wade through the 278-page report, as well as to do some of my own research.
The first thing I found was that software programs like Net Nanny, which aim to filter inappropriate content, are still a good first line of defense. Their text-based filters can alert you when your child gets an instant message soliciting sex or asking if his parents are at home. Although the task force points out that these filters tend to be focused on pornography, rather than violence, tech-savvy parents can customize the software to their liking.
Still, like antivirus software, filtering software is always catching up with the bad guys' latest tricks. For years, savvy kids have circumvented the filters by typing https:// instead of http:// before a Web address. The latest version of Net Nanny solved that problem, but then encrypted AOL Instant Messages fell through the cracks – so Net Nanny had to issue a patch. Common sense dictates that a time-strapped parent will always be less vigilant about downloading updates than kids will be about finding loopholes in such software.
Then there are the walled gardens on the Internet that tout themselves as safe – places like Facebook, where people supposedly use their real names and have lots of control over who can see their information. Peer pressure can keep these places relatively safe – but they are not problem-free.
It's still very easy to impersonate someone on Facebook. I have several friends who have multiple Facebook identities – one for professional friends and one for personal friends and family. And I've run across people on Facebook pretending to be someone they're not – including one person who claimed to be Paul Wolfowitz but was not.
Some of the supposedly "safe" social networks for kids have also had their troubles. Imbee.com, for instance, launched in 2006 as a social network that sought parental approval for kids to join. But, in 2008, the Federal Trade Commission fined Imbee $130,000 for collecting personal information about more than 10,000 kids without adequately notifying parents.
Finally, there is age and identity verification technology – which a coalition of attorneys general have been pushing MySpace to adopt. In theory, verifying identities would prevent sexual predators from pretending to be young kids, and would prevent bullies from hiding their harassment behind anonymity.
But identity verification is tricky on the Internet, in large part because of the difficulty of finding appropriate data to use to verify identities. Identity checks that use home addresses can be foiled by anyone who knows your address. Identity checks using driver's licenses exclude kids too young to drive. And identity checks that use social security numbers or some other government ID open up a whole can of worms about the legal and political risks of private companies accessing that data.
MySpace has floated the idea of creating e-mail registries for children that it can use to verify identities. But the task force rejected this out of hand noting that "there are a host of civil liberty, privacy, and safety concerns with collecting information on children for a registry of this sort."
The task force also pointed out that it was impressed with a Web site icouldbe.org, which pairs teens with adult mentors. The site carefully screens its members through background searches and monitors the interactions so adult and teen cannot exchange any personal information or arrange to meet offline. Honestly, if this is what the Internet becomes – bloodless heavily-monitored relationships with background-checked adults – will anyone ever log on again?
Still, the good news in the report is that most teens don't really run into as much trouble online as is portrayed by the media. And the teens that do engage in risky behavior online are generally doing so offline as well, so they're easy to spot.
For most parents, it seems that our best bet is to treat the Internet like an unsupervised playground in a sketchy neighborhood: You shouldn't drop your kids off there and walk away. You are obligated to stick around and make sure some kid doesn't beat up your kid – even if you're just watching from a bench on the sidelines.
Write to Julia Angwin at firstname.lastname@example.org