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Internet Safety Is Goal Of Bill

Parental Consent Is Among Provisions

March 9, 2007
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer

Popular Internet social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook would have to verify users' ages and get parental permission before minors could post profiles under a proposed law pending in the General Assembly.

Connecticut would become a national leader in protecting minors on the Internet if it adopts the tighter age restrictions, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said.

The bill cleared its first major hurdle Thursday when it won unanimous approval from the legislature's general law committee.

The intent of the bill is clear. Unclear is what form parental permission would take and what would prevent youths from faking permission.

While more than a dozen states are considering similar legislation, Connecticut is the first to draft and submit a law for review, said Blumenthal, who co-chairs a 45-member national task force of attorneys general studying the issue.

"Connecticut now has the opportunity to be out at the forefront of a proactive movement to protect our children from the perils of a social networking site," Blumenthal said during testimony before the law committee.

A MySpace official Thursday said it is working on security measures and insisted a law is not the best way to protect users.

Under the bill, networking sites that failed to verify ages and failed to obtain parental permission before posting profiles of users under age 18 would face civil penalties of up to $5,000 a day for every day of noncompliance.

The law would require sites to cross-check personal information - such as name, birth date and address - to see if it matched existing public records, Blumenthal said.

Those checks would reduce the chance that people using fraudulent information in their profiles would get several layers of erroneous personal information correct.

Parents would be contacted directly if necessary to confirm a minor's application and age, he said.

Blumenthal said parental permission might involve downloading a form, filling it out and mailing it to the site. Or perhaps requiring a parent to call and speak to a representative of the site.

Blumenthal said he would challenge the sites to come up with a method.

Ways to ensure that minors don't falsify permission also would be left to the sites.

The attorney general's office and state Department of Consumer Protection would monitor compliance through enforcement of the federal Fair Trade Practices Act.

Networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and Xanga have been abused by older men who lie about their true age in their profiles seeking to lure underage girls into sex.

At least six alleged assaults involving older men and younger girls who met through MySpace were investigated in Connecticut last year, Blumenthal said.

Although networking sites have repeatedly fought the proposal, claiming various technical difficulties, Blumenthal said the stricter monitoring software is already available and increasingly affordable. Alcohol and tobacco companies use it, as do credit card companies, he said.

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can verify age on the Internet," Blumenthal said. "There is no fool-proof method, there is no silver bullet. But something, a reliable system, is better than nothing."

In a prepared statement, MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said the company is committed to protecting teens online but does not believe the proposed Connecticut law is the best way to do it. MySpace is one of the nation's largest social networking sites with nearly 160 million posted profiles.

"The most cost-effective means to protect teens online is through a combined approach involving features and tools to make our site safer, educating our users and their parents, and working collaboratively with online safety organizations and companies," he said. "We have and will continue to focus considerable resources on developing effective ways to make our site safer. Attorney General Blumenthal's proposal, while well intentioned, is not the answer."

Over the past year, MySpace has enacted several changes to better protect minors using the service. For instance, members 18 and over can no longer request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old friend's list unless they already know either the youth's e-mail address or full name.

While networking sites require people to post personal information to become a member and create a profile, no one currently checks to make sure that information is legitimate, Blumenthal said. The state is simply asking the networking sites to enforce the terms of service they have now, he said.

MySpace continues to be popular among young teenagers despite the restrictions, Blumenthal said. Victims in Connecticut's MySpace cases have ranged in age from 12 to 15, he said. A recent survey at Avon Middle School found that 21 percent of fifth- through eighth-graders had profiles on MySpace and similar sites, Blumenthal said. An investigator in the attorney general's office recently found a 9-year-old girl's profile on MySpace, complete with her photograph, he said.

State Rep. John Mazurek, D-Wolcott, said he supported the bill but had concerns about how a law would be enforced.

"At this point, it seems unmanageable to me," Mazurek said during Thursday's hearing. Mazurek later asked Blumenthal whether the state was going to require MySpace to make 160 million phone calls to parents to verify their children's ages.

Blumenthal said parents would be contacted only in cases involving minors. Parents remain the front line of defense in protecting children using the Internet, Blumenthal said. Requiring young children to get permission from their parents gives those parents another tool to monitor their children's activity on the computer, he said.

State Rep. Christopher R. Stone, an East Hartford Democrat and co-chairman of the law committee, agreed.

"This is not about putting companies out of business," Stone said. "It's about assisting parents."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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