Thursday, April 06, 2006

MySpace Cadets 

We hear a lot in the news about online predators stalking underage users, with the latest bugaboo being MySpace. Maybe there's a serious problem; maybe it's no worse than in the real world, and simply educating kids will help. But there's something else going on in society, and it's really clouding the issue.

The problem is, pedophilia has tainted everything, and the rightful need to catch child molestors is causing problems in other areas. It seems that, in the public mind, an eighteen year-old boy who continues to have sex with his sixteen year-old girlfriend is in the same class as a fifty year-old man who rapes an eight year-old boy. Yes, there is a difference there, because the day before the boy turned eighteen, he could mess around with his girlfriend all he wanted -- but there was never a "magic" date when the fifty year-old man suddenly couldn't molest minors. Well, okay, maybe the date when he could play doctor with the boy next door -- but that passed four decades ago.

In other words, big difference between the two, but we're suddenly seeing the wrong people caught in the right trap. I'm all for locking up the way-past adult predators who seduce underage kids online. But suddenly we're seeing (or at least hearing about) an upswing of cases of the "children as child pornographers" variety -- e.g., recent cases of several teenages arrested for posting indecent photos or videos of their friends on MySpace or YouTube. Stupid? Yes. Cause for seperating them from a computer for a few years? Definitely. Criminal? Not so clear. Criminal, perhaps, in the civil sense. Criminal in the lock 'em up for twenty years sense? Nah.

The correct description of these actions is stupid and juvenile. The trouble is, it makes it difficult for the grown-ups online when kids don't realize they aren't the only ones in the sandbox. Long before the internet, we had to do our sexual experimenting in treehouses or homes without parents or other out-of-the-way places, and we sure as hell didn't take photos and pass them around. Kids seem to think that the net is this big, anonymous place that no one ever sees -- and they're wrong.

And that can make problems for adult users who have no interest whatsoever in seeing underage kids naked or doing the nasty or whatever. For example, I have a lot of adult friends in the arts who use MySpace for networking. A couple of wrong clicks, they could wind up with illegal stuff in their cache, and possibly be none the wiser. Another problem I've run across is that kids lie online about their age. Why? First, because it's so easy. A box asks your age, you can put in 18 or 105 or 15. Second, when that box asks your age, if you answer under 18, you can't get access to all the good stuff out there.

A few years ago, I used to do a lot of online chat, and it became clear pretty quickly that kids were hanging out where they shouldn't. I used to have a prelim line of what seemed like casual questioning that would usually flush them out. I remember one exchange where a "19" year-old said he didn't have a webcam anymore because his parents took it away. Oops. Anyway, whenever my alarm went off, I'd persist until I got the truth, then tell the kids to get the hell out of the adult rooms. I think Yahoo finally took care of the problem, but in the wrong way. I've heard that they closed down all the adult chat rooms. Or, in other words, they punished the normal grown-ups for the behavior of the kids. And the criminals -- whose work was no doubt made easier by those kids.

Censorship -- for adults -- is not the answer. The answer is the same solution we have for bars, strip joints, adult bookstores, NC-17 movies, etc. Proper ID, or b'bye. Of course, in the real world, that's a much easier solution than online. For example, as far as I know, anyone can access this blog, unless it's been blocked by a filter on their end. So I can write shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits here and most anyone can read it. Should I be able to type those words, as an adult, without being censored? Hell yes. Should we have mechanisms in place to make sure kids can't read them? Of course. Do I have any idea how to do it?

Yes and no. The trick is maintaining the anonymity of the internet while being able to have an absolute (or as close as possible) identifier, at least as far as age goes. The idea sort of exists with various Age Check systems used as porn portals online -- but the problem is that people have to pay, and then those systems only provide access to the sites that subscribe to them on the other end.

Another problem is determining where to place the access -- user or computer? We could give every adult their own unique ID/password after verifying their age through some clearing house system, but that would require a massive system of ID checking and verification and etc., etc. And, having to show ID in person really doesn't play into the anonymous idea, even if the ID were never recorded, but just noted before a password could be issued; even if there were no link between that password and the original ID. Another problem with this system is that a user would have to enter the info for every site they visited that was deemed adults only, unless the ID lived on the computer, but that brings up a whole other bunch of issues.

The problem is, not every family with kids can afford a computer for everyone, and not every user can (or will bother to) figure out how to configure multiple users on one machine. Cookie that ID or make it a computer level filter, you might as well take the kids to the adult sites yourself.

Filtering software? Yeah, maybe -- but it needs work. For example, I once quoted "the pen is mightier than the sword" in an email to a friend at his work account and it bounced, because the filter read "pen is" as something else. XXX domain? Not a bad idea, although, a) it really should be something less loaded, like .adu, and b) deciding what goes there would be a bitch. Only hardcore porn? Anything unsuitable for kids? Would creating a separate adult domain leave other sites open to penalties if, say, a blogger used a few expletives on a .com?

Of course, we could eliminate 90% of these problems if parents would bother to do their job as parents. Install filtering software. Do not put the computer in the kid's room. Know how to look at history files and the cache, or install logging software. Check-up on your children's MySpace or Yahoo profiles, talk to them about inappropriate content. And remind yourself you're not a bad parent if you don't get your kid the latest camera phone/digital camera/camcorder/webcam, no matter how much they whine that all their friends have them. I mean, seriously -- webcams were invented for online sex. Why the hell would your kid need one? Grandparents want to see the kids? Email a digital photo from your own camera. It'll last longer.

Anyway... things seem to be moving the right way in one regard, and that's with the online stings. Any adult who'd arrange a tryst with someone they believe to be 12 or 14 or even 17 deserves to be arrested and humiliated and jailed. And, in those cases, it's just a matter of guilty adults exposing themselves by taking the bait, leaving the rest of us with nothing to worry about. But as for the rest of it, we really need to do something before the childish actions of children ruin the online world for the responsible, law-abiding grown-ups, and we have to do it in a way that... um, doesn't ruin the online world for the responsible, law-abiding grown-ups.

It starts with responsible parents, people who don't expect me to help raise their children. The rest? We need a technical innovation, and the person who comes up with it could wind up very wealthy. No, I'm not that person. But somebody out there is. Put on that thinking cap. It could be as simple as a rating algorithm that automatically and passively tags a page in the FTP or indexing process, combined with filtering software on the user end -- sort of an online version of the V-Chip.

As long as the lazy parents out there bother to learn how to use it -- although, given the continued bitching of some groups despite the V-Chip, I'm not optimistic about that.

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