Column: Social Networking: A Trend to Watch

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The surge in popularity of social networking Web sites has raised concerns about the safety of children and teenagers who participate on them.

Recent research has documented the popularity of such sites among teens. A March survey from Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that 61 percent of those ages 13-17 have personal profiles on sites like MySpace, Friendster or Xanga.

Also, research firm eMarketer estimates that U.S. companies will spend $1.8 billion annually on advertising at one prominent site, MySpace.com, and competing social networking sites by 2010, up from $280 million in 2006.

Though not easily defined, social networking sites generally let users post information or content about themselves in a profile and communicate easily with other users in the network. This definition also encompasses, for example, online dating sites, certain instant messaging tools and collaborative software spaces.

But there are reports that child predators and others intent on preying on young site participants are using social networking sites. Identity thieves, hackers, phishers and spammers are exploiting these sites, too.

Law is watching, too. As with many new technologies, there are challenges in dealing with negative behavior that accompanies the benefits of these sites. Policymakers have begun to focus on combating child predators in this arena. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation July 26 aiming to address this problem: H.R. 5319, the DAlisa Bergmaneleting Online Predators Act.

This bill would require schools and libraries that receive federal E-Rate funding to implement filtering technologies to protect children from materials on the Internet that are obscene or harmful to minors.

It would condition such schools' and libraries' funding eligibility on certification of a policy protecting against access to a "commercial social networking Web site" or "chat room" in schools, unless used for an educational purpose with adult supervision; and in libraries, without parental authorization.

Alisa Bergman

The definitions of these two terms would be determined in a subsequent Federal Communications Commission rulemaking.

Narrow focus? At recent congressional hearings, concern was expressed that this legislation contains overly broad definitions of terms, including "social networking sites," which would cover virtually all interactive Web applications.

Concern also was raised that the bill focuses solely on libraries and schools, and the difficulty they would face in determining which sites are covered.

And there was concern that the bill is under-inclusive by applying only to the poorest schools. This not only would widen the digital divide by restricting public access to technology in communities that most need it, it also could render the bill unconstitutional.

Witnesses emphasized that parental education and involvement in their children's online activities are key.

At the hearings, some members of Congress called for federal requirements on Internet service providers to retain subscriber IP address data to aid law enforcement investigations. There also were calls for age verification and limiting site access by younger users, but this is problematic from an operational standpoint given the potential for children to provide incorrect age information, which cannot be independently verified.

Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Harbour testified that the FTC is investigating several social networking sites to ensure they comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Moreover, the Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ohio attorneys general, among others, have requested that improved age verification technologies be deployed and that safety concerns be addressed at prominent social networking sites.

Steps for sites. Among the measures companies conducting social networking-type activities should consider are whether the site attracts children and teens and, if so, implementing measures to protect them; and providing clear options for user permission settings, such as making information publicly available, with text explaining them.

Another measure to consider is clearly and prominently informing users about the site's privacy practices, especially how and when its information is shared; making default settings limited, for example, to a trusted group of family or friends, with the ability to provide this information to others.

Companies should monitor developments on this issue in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission, as well as self-regulatory efforts, and consult with legal counsel before embracing this trend. n

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