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Conn. lawmakers want MySpace, others to verify user ages

Bill would require parental consent before posting profiles of minors

March 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Connecticut legislators are pushing a bill that would make it harder for kids and adults to lie about their ages on social networking sites such as MySpace, Xanga and Facebook.

The measure, sponsored by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, would require those and similar sites to verify the ages of those signing up for their services and force minors to obtain parental consent before posting their profiles. It would also allow parents to access their children's Web pages.

The bill is designed to protect underage children from online predators, Blumenthal said in a statement.

"These sites must verify ages and give parents power to keep their children off these sites," Blumenthal said. "Failing to verify ages means that children are exposed to sexual predators who may be older men lying to seem younger."

He also said he doesn't believe there are technological reasons not to do age verifications. "If we can put a man on the moon -- or invent the Internet -- we can reliably check ages," Blumenthal said.

Under the proposal, sites that fail to verify user ages or obtain parental consent to post profiles of minors could face fines of up to $5,000 per violation. The bill would also allow individuals to sue social networking sites that fail to take such measures.

Blumenthal's bill is being endorsed by several Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the state and comes amid growing concerns about social networking sites becoming havens for sexual predators and pedophiles. In Connecticut, at least six alleged sexual assaults of underage girls by older men last year were believed to be tied to MySpace, Blumenthal said. He said there have been dozens of similar arrests countrywide.

Blumenthal who is helping to lead a coalition of 44 states asking MySpace to institute age verification, said that attorneys general from other states had expressed a "strong interest" in the measure. Members of the group have also met with officials from other social networking sites, such as Xanga and Facebook, to discuss the issue. "Age verification is the key to making social networking sites safer," he said.

In an e-mailed statement, Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer of MySpace, called Blumenthal's proposal "well intentioned" but said it is not the answer to protecting minors.

"MySpace is deeply committed to protecting teens online," said Nigam, who called for a "combined approach" that includes tools and features for making the site better, user education and collaboration with "online safety organizations."

"We have and will continue to focus considerable resources on developing effective ways to make our site safer," he said.

Officials from Xanga and Facebook did to respond to requests for comment.

A bill such as the one proposed in Connecticut "allows you to control the people who are willing to be controlled" but is unlikely to make much of a difference otherwise, said Pete Lindstrom, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. "The notion of the predator is getting lost here. Are we trying to validate the kids who are underage trying to act overage, or the overage adults trying to act like they are underage?"

In most cases, the threat to minors visiting such sites comes not from other minors but from adults, he said. And those individuals are likely able to easily circumvent any age verification process a site might impose, he said. An attacker setting up a profile as his own son for instance would easily defeat age verification checks, he said.

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