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Free Expression

Task Force Faces Complex Issues in Protecting Children Online: CDTAppreciates Opportunity to Participate, Remains Skeptical

For immediate release:
February 28, 2008

Contact: Brock N. Meeks, CDT
(202) 637-9800 ex. 114
(703) 989-3547 (CELL)

Washington, D.C. — The Center for Democracy & Technology today announced its participation in the newly formed Internet Safety Technical Task Force, created to examine technologies that might be used to protect children from inappropriate material or contacts on the Internet.

The task force, an outgrowth of an agreement between and 49 state Attorneys General, will focus on whether age verification and other technologies can be used to keep children out of social networking sites and sites aimed at adults, and keep adults out of sites intended for minors only.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School will coordinate the task force. CDT believes that the Berkman staff is well qualified to lead the task force, and we look forward to working with them to ensure that critical policy and legal questions are addressed.

“The task force is comprised of members with a mix of technical, policy, civil liberties, and industry perspectives. That is the right approach,” said CDT President Leslie Harris. “CDT is pleased to take its place at this important table. However, while we look forward to a thorough and rigorous study of the issues, our participation comes with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

CDT believes that technology tools in the hands of parents are a key part of the online safety landscape; however, technologies, such as age verification, that put Internet companies in the role of gatekeeper, raise a host of legal and policy questions. These questions have sweeping implications for the future of the Internet and its millions of users worldwide.

Harris said that for the task force to be legitimate, it must ask not only, “Can we build age verification technology that works,” but also, “should we?”

The implications of age verification technology go well beyond merely acting as a digital bouncer; requiring all Internet users to prove their age could cast a shadow over the core principles of an open and innovative Internet. “The potential negative impact of age verification on privacy and free expression cannot be overlooked,” said CDT General Counsel John Morris. “The task force must consider any technology’s effectiveness, what unintended consequences there might be, and whether there are alternative solutions that could address the same problems in less intrusive ways.”

The complex issues the task force will have to confront include:

  • How does a U.S.-based solution apply when minors try accessing foreign-based web sites?
  • Who decides whether users or providers should bear the cost of implementing new age verification technologies?
  • Is it possible to have robust age verification but still protect privacy?
  • Would Internet users, regardless of age, be required to register and log in wherever they go?
  • Would the important, constitutionally protected, ability of anonymous access to information be undermined?
  • Would a minor’s personal information be stored on large databases belonging to private companies contracted for such work? And what, if any, access would consumers have to that information?
  • Would excluding minors from social networking sites violate their constitutional right to free speech?
  • Would age verification aimed at minors, but necessarily required of all users, pass constitutional scrutiny if it burdens the free expression of adults?


CDT believes that the new task force must acknowledge that the scope of its investigation does not begin and end with a workable age verification technology, but must also encompass legal and policy issues. “The most critical question is: What effect would age verification have on the dynamic and innovative ways that both adults and minors use the Internet?” said Harris.

About CDT: The Center for Democracy and Technology works to develop and promote policies that will keep the Internet open, innovative and free. With expertise in law, technology, and policy, CDT seeks practical solutions to enhance free expression and privacy in global communications technologies. CDT is dedicated to building consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.