Online Age Verification for Children Brings Privacy Worries

17 Nov Online Age Verification for Children Brings Privacy Worries

New York Times, By Brad Stone, November 15, 2008
WHEN it comes to protecting children on the Internet and keeping them safe from predators, law enforcement officials have vocally advocated one approach in particular. They want popular sites, like the social network MySpace, to confirm the identities and ages of minors and then allow the young Web surfers to talk only with other children, or with adults approved by parents. But performing so-called age verification for children is fraught with challenges. The kinds of publicly available data that Web companies use to confirm the identities of adults, like their credit card or Social Security numbers, are either not available for minors or are restricted by federal privacy laws. Nevertheless, over the last year, at least two dozen companies have sprung up with systems they claim will solve the problem. Surprisingly, their work is proving controversial and even downright unpopular among the very people who spend their days worrying about the well-being of children on the Web. Child-safety activists charge that some of the age-verification firms want to help Internet companies tailor ads for children. They say these firms are substituting one exaggerated threat — the menace of online sex predators — with a far more pervasive danger from online marketers like junk food and toy companies that will rush to advertise to children if they are told revealing details about the users. “It’s particularly upsetting,” said Nancy Willard, an expert on Internet safety who has raised concerns about age verification on her Web site over the last month. “Age verification companies are selling parents on the premise that they can protect the safety of children online, and then they are using this information for market profiling and targeted advertising.” Ms. Willard has raised specific questions about a company called eGuardian, which appears to be the furthest along in developing a system to confirm children’s identities on the Web. A small, 29-employee start-up based in Ontario, Calif., eGuardian has a clever if somewhat convoluted way of solving the age-verification-for-children quandary. It asks a parent to submit the birth date, address, school and gender of a child, then it asks schools to confirm the information. Over the last year, eGuardian has been approaching schools, primarily in California, and offering them the entire $29 sign-up fee when they persuade parents to sign up their children. EGuardian’s real money-making hope — and this is what makes Ms. Willard nervous — is to have Web sites pay a commission for each eGuardian member. The Web site can then use the data on each child to tailor its advertising. Ron Zayas, eGuardian’s chief executive, says that the company gives no specific information about users to Web sites and that parents are given the choice of opting out of having any data sent to advertisers. He says he understands the privacy concerns of people like Ms. Willard but calls it a “tradeoff.”