Are Internet child safety concerns overblown or understated?

The Attorney General of South Carolina apparently is not the only one upset with a recent report downplaying the threats faced by children online even though he was involved in setting up the very task force that compiled the report.

John Phillips, the CEO of Aristotle Inc., is another one who has problems with the report's conclusions despite being a member of the task force that wrote it. In a statement issued on Jan. 14 the same day the report was released by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), Phillips expressed his disappointment at the "false sense of security" it created for parents and the community at large.

The report, he said, overstated "preliminary and exploratory research findings about sexual predation online." It underestimated the risk to minors on the "vastly understudied area of predation" on social networking sites.  His comments are very similar to those made by Henry McMaster the AG of South Carolina who also accused the Task Force of downplaying the seriousness of online security threats.

Aristotle is a company that provides campaign software, voter data and other "political technology" and touts among its customers, "every occupant of the White House" for more than 25 years.

The 279-page report at the center of the controversy is titled "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" and is based on a review of academic and industry research. It was compiled by the ISTTF following an agreement last February between MySpace and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) . The effort is aimed at improving online safety for children, particularly on social networking sites. In addition to MySpace, task force included representatives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and several child-safety and public policy advocacy organizations.

According to the Task Force, rather than sexual predators and dirty old men in trench coats, the biggest threat to children on the Internet really is from other kids about their own age. And it's not sexual solicitation and exposure to pornography that policy makers and parents need to worry about when it comes to keeping kids safe online, but rather cyber-bullying and online harassment from peers. For the most part, task force members said, social networking sites are safer for kids than generally perceived and provided a relatively positive and healthy environment for social interaction

For many, the report's conclusions were long overdue and underscored a fact that should have been recognized a long time ago: namely that the Internet in general and social networking sites in particular are not crawling with sexual predators as the media, parents and policy makers tend to assume.

Critics though see the analysis as being tainted because of the fact that it was compiled by a task force that included MySpace and other social networking sites and technology companies with a clearly vested interest in portraying their environments as being safe for children. As an example of that bias, they pointed particularly to the task force's apparent failure to examine the potential security and privacy risks posed to children by the extensive data collection and targeted advertising practices on social networking sites.

In this context, the criticisms of the report by Phillips and McMaster are interesting. According to Phillips, the Task Force is guilty not just of downplaying the dangers faced by children online. The Task Force, Phillips noted, also did not expressly call on MySpace to stop destroying the extensive data it has on the use of the social networking site by registered sex offenders. "Concerned parents, Attorneys General, and others must wonder how a Task Force with a research group -- all supposedly devoted to focusing on social network site safety -- could fail to review or -- at a minimum -- even request such that such irreplaceable data be preserved for study," he claimed.

McMaster meanwhile claimed that the report's findings simply did not align with the reality in his state at least where law enforcement officials have arrested nearly 150 individuals for online child solicitation over the past few years.

So are Internet child safety threats being overblown? Or was the task force being overly benign in its assessment of the threats? It's hard to tell for sure without another review-by a truly independent group next time.

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