Turning MySpace into TheirSpace

Like a coffee shop or a mall, the Internet has evolved into a digital “third place,” a location we visit not only for business needs, but for entertainment and social interaction. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

With the advent of social networking Web sites like MySpace, the Web is no longer just an extension of the office — it’s a vast virtual playground where individuals of all ages can meet up and chill out.

But recent calls for the government to place restrictions and requirements on sites like MySpace would march out the government hall monitors, forcing MySpace to become TheirSpace.

Calls for mandated age-verification schemes on social networking Web sites are the latest volley in the ongoing battle to regulate technology and tamp down on free speech.

In recent months, social networking sites have been pummeled from all sides, facing everything from massive lawsuits to demands that they produce software to block their own products.

From video games to movies, it’s the same old song we’ve heard time and time again, sung, as always, to the tune of “for the children.” And, as with previous attempts to regulate speech and technology, a cadre of legislators, attorneys general, and activists are pushing for a bevy of rules that would rob parents of their authority and hand it to the government.

Social networking Web sites may want to institute age verification programs on their own, but doing so should never be mandatory. Government requirements for such verification would require technological and logistical solutions that do not currently exist, as many teens do not possess the sort of identifying documentation that would be necessary for such a scheme to work.

Additionally, a mandatory identification law would likely require the development of some sort of national identification system, and it would still be unlikely to be fully successful. Even China, one of the world’s most restrictive, tightly-monitored regimes, has proven relatively unsuccessful in its efforts to filter and block portions of the Web.

Some smaller social networking sites have rushed to proclaim the effectiveness of their age verification systems, but this seems disingenuous. These systems tend to be overly restrictive and effective only for smaller scale sites that cater to niche groups of mostly minors.

The operators of these sites would be thrilled to see all social networking sites forced into adopting their practices. It would cost them nothing while placing massive limitations and expensive restrictions on their larger, more successful competitors.

Moreover, calls to develop such an identification system would create the possibility for an array of unforeseen consequences, as there are inherent dangers in requiring minors to publicly register their identities. By creating a centralized ID database, such requirements would render minors’ personal information more vulnerable. Do parents really want their kids forced to give out personal data for public use?

The best way to think of social networking sites is as virtual extensions of the physical world. Like malls and coffee shops, they are privately-owned public places. And just as it would be absurd to require malls to check IDs at their doors, it is even more absurd to require MySpace to hunt down personal information on its more than 90 million users.

But age verification isn’t the only cloud looming in front of MySpace.

Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly has called for the Web site to offer blocking software to parents. But computer-savvy kids are likely to find ways around such software (as is already happening at many schools), and worse, it sets the precedent that a business may be required to spend money producing a device that actively counteracts its product-an idea with disturbing implications. Will fast food chains next be required to make room for treadmills? Will movie theaters be forced into passing out blinders and ear plugs?

Recently, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Deleting Online Predators Act, a bill that would restrict federal funding from libraries and schools that refuse to block chat rooms and social networking sites.

The law is perhaps the least problematic of the current wave of proposals.

Though the decision whether or not to block these sites would be best done at a local level, it is a fact of life that whatever entity controls the funding — in this case the federal government — gets to set the terms for distribution.

Still, if enacted, the law would give the FCC broad power to define what constitutes a social networking site, setting up the likelihood that a vague, overly expansive definition could return to haunt future Web-related legislation-legislation which the DOPA vote and mounting criticism of MySpace suggest is likely.

Whatever the details of the proposals, they all share an ominous common thread of government stepping in to usurp the authority of parents. By urging government as a solution to the challenges of parental monitoring, advocates of these proposals send the signal that legislators, not parents, are best suited to watch over children.

But the best age-verification system is parental oversight, and parents should be wary of any rules that give the government more power over what their children can do.

Proponents of such restrictions ought to refocus their energies on encouraging parents to watch over their children’s activities rather than trying to turn that authority over to the government.