Should MySpace Be Required to Bar Users Under Age Sixteen?
State Attorneys General Say Yes, But This Solution Will Be Ineffective, and Others Will Work Much Better

By ANITA RAMASASTRY
Friday, Jan. 26, 2007

Last week, four families announced that they have filed suit against the social-networking site MySpace and its owner, News Corporation. Each family alleges that its teenage daughter was sexually abused by an adult she met on MySpace.

This is not the first such suit for MySpace. In June 2006, MySpace was sued by a Texas family who alleges that its fourteen-year-old daughter was assaulted by a nineteen-year-old she met on MySpace - who lied about being a senior in high school to gain her trust.

Amid litigation and public controversy, thirty-three states' attorneys general have now called for MySpace to restrict site usage exclusively to persons sixteen years of age or older, and implement stronger age verification. If MySpace fails to comply, the AGs have indicated that they may consider legal action.

In this column, I will discuss the Attorneys General's recommendations, and also MySpace's own response to safety issues: parental notification software. In addition, I'll explain why, in the end, I believe what will ultimately allow teens to meet up online safety is a mixture of stronger age verification; and a campaign by parents and others to better educate teens about the dangers of online meetups, and how to proceed carefully.

Age Requirements in Cyberspace: What the Law Mandates

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) regulates the use of websites by minors. Websites targeted primarily at children have a duty to obtain "verifiable" parental consent before allowing children thirteen years and under to become users. The Federal Trade (FTC) commission is the agency that enforces COPPA.

Recently, the FTC commenced an enforcement action against Xanga.com, another popular social networking site, alleging that the site had failed to implement proper age controls. Xanga.com agreed to pay $1 million -- the largest penalty ever assessed for violations of COPPA.

According to the FTC's complaint, Xanga permitted approximately 1.7 million accounts to be opened by individuals who listed birth dates indicating that they were under age thirteen, without getting parental consent. Collecting personal information from anyone under thirteen without parental consent is a violation of COPPA.

Unlike Xanga, MySpace only allows users age fourteen and older to post profiles on its site, thus complying with COPPA in this respect. However, it's possible MySpace still may attract FTC scrutiny and pressure. MySpace does not, at present, verify the reported ages of its users.

After all, the FTC, after noting that "children under thirteen have often been the standard for distinguishing adolescents from young children who may need special protections," adds that "As a general matter, however, the FTC encourages operators to afford teens privacy protections, given the risks inherent in the disclosure of personal information for all ages." (Emphasis added)

Still, unless and until Congress chooses to amend COPPA, MySpace and other networking sites should be free to include fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds among their members.

Should MySpace Restrict its Users to Age Sixteen? The Attorneys General's Goal, and Why Restrictions Won't Meet It

As noted above, a group of thirty-three states' Attorneys General, led by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, has threatened possible legal action if MySpace does not raise the minimum age of its members from its current fourteen, to sixteen, and also confirm the ages of all of its users. I will discuss each of these proposals in turn.

First, there's the proposed age limit: The AGs have focused on the age of sixteen, in particular, because some teens can get driver's licenses or learner's permits at sixteen - opening up the possibility that MySpace might be able to verify identities against DMV records. But many teenagers do not drive at age sixteen, meaning DMV records' usefulness would be limited. Moreover, many younger teens could still use other persons' licenses or data to create false profiles and get online.

In addition, and very importantly, even if young teens are barred from MySpace itself, they can simply choose to hang out in other chat rooms and unregulated sites. Teen tastes are fickle, and other sites may become more popular - meaning the same dynamic reappears, perhaps on a more irresponsible site. Is it fair to force one site to limit its user base and not others?

In addition, there are many ways teens can meet dangerous persons offline - such as in malls, all-ages clubs, and other popular hangouts. Thus, if teens are truly to be protected effectively, they need to be educated not to meet strangers alone, and to always do so in public places, not places where they might fear for their safety.

Parents need to take responsibility and work to educate their kids about the dos and don'ts of being online; schools, too, should ensure their students get the message.

The Attorneys General's Suggestion that Could Be Effective: Age Verification

The AGs' second suggestion - that MySpace should begin verifying all members' ages against public databases -- is more promising. This will be useful -- especially in figuring out whether certain adults are masquerading as teenagers. (Some of the problems on MySpace have arisen because adults have created profiles and pretended to be teenagers themselves.)

Age verification through use of public records is not foolproof, of course, but it will be a useful tool in terms of online safety. Property records, voter registration, DMV records, credit card trails, and criminal records, including aliases, all offer a chance of catching predatory adults. In addition, the AGs contend that MySpace can confirm the ages of younger users by requiring information from a parent or guardian whose own identity is verified.

MySpace could also offer a voluntary program by which users can become verified. Users could subject themselves to more rigorous background screening. They could then post some sort of seal or logo on their profile that shows that they have been screened more intensively. This, too, is not foolproof, of course. Given the rapid increase in identity theft, someone could still pose as another person. Yet it may still be useful.

Even if no method of verification is foolproof, using several together may work better. A credit card, for instance, could demonstrate that a user is an adult. Granted, many teens are able to borrow their parents' credit cards - but even a $0.01 charge by MySpace may alert parents when they go over their statements.

Another networking site, Facebook.com, attempts to verify its members' ages (roughly, at least) by limiting access only to those with a working e-mail address from a high school, college, or participating business. Again, such verification isn't foolproof, by a longshot, but still may be useful.

MySpace's Own Efforts: Will They Help?

So far, MySpace has refused to take either of the steps demanded by the AGs. It defends its age limit of fourteen. MySpace has claimed that it is better for younger teens to join and take advantage of the special privacy protections designed for fourteen- and fifteen-year-old members, than to lie about their age to join.

MySpace users who list their age as fourteen or fifteen are given a confidential profile that can't be accessed by members who report their age as over eighteen. This means that anything beyond their name and home town is inaccessible to adult strangers. In addition, MySpace members over eighteen can't add fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds as "friends" unless they know a teen's first and last name or e-mail address. In addition, teens can block contact from any adults they don't already know.

In response to recent controversy, MySpace announced last week that it will offer free software, called Zephyr, which permits parents to locate their teenager's MySpace profile. Zephyr also tracks and reports any changes to a teens' profile.

A parent can load the Zephyr software onto his or her home computers. The software will identify any user who logs onto MySpace from those computers, and collect his or her user name, age, and reported home town. That information will be stored on the hard drive, and parents -- or anyone else who has administrative privileges on the computer --can access it using a password. (It is possible to find out whether a teen has a MySpace profile by visiting MySpace's Web site, but parents may have trouble locating their teenagers' profile pages because teens often use fake names or nicknames.)

The software doesn't enable parents to read their child's e-mail or see the contents of a teen's MySpace page. If parents have used Zephyr, a teen will be alerted that their information is being shared. The program would continue to send updates to parents about changes in a teen's listings of his or her name, age, and location -- even when he or she logs on from other computers.

Of course, there are concerns about such software. As a general matter, Zephyr plainly infringe upon the privacy of teens. And there may be legitimate reasons for teens to keep their online identities and computer usage confidential. For instance, suppose a teen is openly gay to peers, but not to a parent who would abuse him or her if the parent found out.

In addition, any software that tracks computer usage is worrisome. Could abusers use Zephyr to keep tabs on their spouses? More generally, teens may start avoiding use of their home computers, and only visit MySpace at cybercafés or public libraries. Thus, Zephyr is no panacea; it is only part of a larger effort to make cyber-networking safer for teens.

The Bottom Line: A Minimum Age of Sixteen Is a Mistake, But Age Verification Can Be Helpful

If the Attorneys General do go ahead and file their lawsuit, it could cost MySpace millions in attorneys fees. MySpace is the most popular social networking Web site in the world, but its ability to attract advertisers may be hindered by ongoing concerns about teen safety.

What can MySpace do to avoid this outcome, and better protect its users? I think the answer is that it should accept some of the AG's age verification ideas, though not their suggested age minimum of sixteen - for all teens should be able to post a profile and start learning to use the Internet responsibly.


Anita Ramasastry is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns.