The Politics of Online Age Verification
7/9/07 - National Journal
Age-verification technologies have the potential to dramatically affect how people do
business and interact socially online.
Some lawmakers and law enforcers are pushing such applications as tools to protect
children on popular social-networking sites like MySpace. Others are curious as to
whether age verification can be used as part of a regulatory regime if Congress rescinds
restrictions on Internet gambling.
But the dispute is being shaped by disagreement over how well the technologies work,
and it has ensnared companies with considerable influence inside the Beltway and
Old Enough To Gamble
Last month, the House Financial Services Committee examined the feasibility of
enforcing a proposal to let financial companies process payments to online gambling
The debate focused on conflicting testimony about whether age-verification technologies
could be used to effectively regulate the e-gambling industry. Michael Colopy, the senior
vice president at Aristotle International, deflected recent criticism about the effectiveness
of such services that companies like his provide.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in the states already are familiar with Aristotle,
which made a name for itself providing technology services and voter information to
political campaigns. The company boasts on its Web site that it has "served every
occupant of the White House since 1980." Aristotle also provides age-verification
services to more than 300 financial firms and other high-profile clients.
Colopy told the committee that the marketplace has embraced age-verification
applications because companies have realized their potential benefits. "The data tells
the story in the marketplace every day in the tens of millions, where a lot is at risk,"
His remarks clashed with those made by Jeff Schmidt, the CEO of the identityverification
firm Authis. Schmidt said research has proven that such applications fail at
rates as high as 20 percent. "These technologies are not reliable in their current form,"
But Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the adequacy of ageverification tools may not be all that significant in the debate over legalized e-gambling.
He said most people who oppose the practice have focused their concerns on young
adults and college students. "Whether age-verification is good [or] not good isn't going to
resolve the problem of people [gambling online] who are 18 or beyond," he said.
The Big Beer Bust?
The debate over online age verification also extends to another underage vice: drinking.
Almost half the attorneys general in the country wrote to the brewer Anheuser-Busch
earlier this year about the tools it had employed to keep underage Internet users off one
of its new sites.
The company launched the Bud.tv site after the Super Bowl as part of a new advertising
blitz. The multimillion-dollar portal features a combination of originally produced and
user-generated videos that are available behind an age-verification wall provided by
Aristotle. The site is only supposed to be viewable to users old enough to consume
In their letter, the attorneys general urged Anheuser-Busch to begin using a stronger
age-verification tool. The letter was signed by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and
Roy Cooper of North Carolina, both of whom have been strong advocates for ageverification technologies in the social-networking arena.
The law enforcers said they do not see Anheuser-Busch's system as a "genuine
attempt" to keep underage Internet users from accessing the site. In its response,
Anheuser-Busch voiced concerns about driving adult users away from the site by
implementing too strict a system. The firm told AP it also was worried about the potential
invasiveness of Internet filtering systems.
Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, said concerns
about privacy are central to the online safety debate. He said companies that implement
age-verification systems and other tools to screen their sites need to take extra
precautions to protect the data they collect.
"There are legitimate concerns about building databases of information on people who
companies are trying to protect online because that information can be abused," he said.
In a telephone interview, Colopy said the alleged weaknesses in the initial Bud.tv system
had little to do with the technology being used. "There are many variables that are within
the capacity with these tools to manage traffic," he said. "It's the site manager that
determines how they are configured and how they are deployed."
Too Social For State Comfort
The social-networking arena arguably has generated the most debate about age
verification, and that appears likely to continue.
Blumenthal publicly expressed his frustration this spring when Connecticut lawmakers
cleared a bill to require convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses,
screen names and other online information with the state. The proposal was a good step
forward, he said, but it fell short of his goal of requiring social-networking sites to verify
the ages of their users.
He called for age-verification legislation again last week, after a state judge sentenced a
man to jail for using MySpace to molest children. Blumenthal said the sentencing of
David Leonard was "compelling proof" of the need for a higher age threshold on such
sites. "We will continue to explore all options -- including possible legal action -- to
compel MySpace to take safety measures that will help protect children from predators
like [Leonard]," he said in a statement.
An age-verification proposal is still on the table in North Carolina. Cooper supports a
state Senate-passed measure that would require the operators of social networks to
confirm the ages and identities of their users.
Proposals like the one in North Carolina have been sharply criticized by those who doubt
the effectiveness of age-verification tools in such settings. In a recent report, Progress
and Freedom Foundation Senior Fellow Adam Thierer said perfect age-verification is a
"An arms-race scenario is obviously at work here, and because a perfect solution is
impossible, we must guard against a false sense of security," he said, adding that
"because technology is evolving at such a rapid pace in this area, there is a risk that
legislative solutions will become obsolete very rapidly."
But at a National Association of Attorneys General meeting last month, Aristotle CEO
John Phillips said some companies are trying to play both sides of the debate. He noted
that News Corp., which owns MySpace, uses age-verification tools for gaming and
movie Web sites. "This discussion today might be Rupert Murdoch vs. Rupert Murdoch," he said in reference to News Corp.'s chief executive.