MemeStreams Logo

Georgia Senate Bill 59, 2007

A bill has been proposed in the Georgia State Senate which would require social networking websites, possibly including MemeStreams, to verify that minors who create accounts have parental permission. In practice this would mean that any Georgia website, no matter how benign, which allows users to create profiles, would be required to implement as yet undefined age validation procedures for all new users.

We believe that this proposal is a bad idea for a number of different reasons. We composed the following open letter to the sponsors of the legislation in an attempt to articulate our concerns. You can read the text of the proposed legislation here.

Senators Staton, Harp, Carter, Rogers, Hooks, and Hill,

My name is Tom Cross. I am a resident of Dekalb county, Georgia, and I operate a social networking website on the Internet. News media reports recently brought Senate Bill 59, regarding social networking websites, to my attention. I am writing to respectfully urge you to drop this proposal. While I understand the concerns that prompted this legislation, its approach is counter productive and there is no way to amend it to address its myriad problems, some of which I will attempt to articulate in this email. This email will be available to the general public on my website at the URL referenced below. [1]

Since 2001 a friend of mine and I have operated a social networking website called MemeStreams. In every respect MemeStreams is a small website. It does not produce any revenue and we maintain it as a labor of love. Memestreams receives about 20,000 unique viewers a month from all around the world, about 8% of which we estimate are in Georgia. About 2,300 people have accounts here, 3% of which claim they are under the age of 18. However, this number may be unreliable because we cannot validate that users are telling the truth about their age.

As the operator of a website in Georgia that could be impacted by this legislation, I feel that I am in a unique position to discuss its implications. We started MemeStreams because we believe that social networking and blogging technologies are powerful communications tools that can have a positive impact on society. These technologies enable people to keep in touch with friends and share news and information in ways that simply weren't possible prior to the Internet age. Ultimately, these tools help people think and understand their world. If fear is our primary reaction to the emergence of tools like these, that is a poor reflection on our society. The specific concerns that I have with this proposal are as follows:

- This bill does not set specific standards for compliance.

In fact, Senator Staton admitted in news media interviews that he does not know how social networking websites can comply with it. "They can find a way to do this," Staton said. "That's my challenge to them." The lack of a specific standard creates great uncertainty for website operators about whether or not specific measures taken are good enough to comply with the law. Furthermore, it is not clear that there is any viable way to comply. The least intrusive approach that I can imagine is to require account holders to provide a credit card number for verification, as most minors cannot use a credit card without parental permission. However, this approach would raise a number of substantial operational and legal problems that I will discuss further on in this email.

- This bill is unlikely to impact its intended targets.

All of the largest social networking websites in the United States, such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and Orkut, are based in California. When Georgia residents use these websites they are likely engaging in interstate commerce. I am no lawyer, but my understanding is that the United States Constitution restricts the regulation of interstate commerce to the Federal Government. Assuming those restrictions apply in this circumstance, this law will have little impact on the sort of activities it seeks to regulate.

- This bill will impact unintended targets in unintended ways.

Certainly, social networking websites that are based in Georgia, like MemeStreams, may be compelled to comply. There may be many small websites like mine in Georgia, that fit, or nearly fit, the description offered in this bill. Of course, as MemeStreams is a hobby that does not produce revenue, it is difficult for us to comply with complex user validation regulations. Even credit card validation is likely beyond our means; it is difficult to maintain a merchant account with a bank for credit card validation if one never performs full transactions. If this bill were to become law, it is likely that we would be forced to leave the state, or shut the website down completely.

Furthermore, this sort of regulation is entirely unnecessary to police a small website like ours. In 5 years, to our knowledge, no one has committed a crime using our website. Our largest problem is with accounts created by spammers, and we do a fair job of keeping those under control. MemeStreams is simply not large enough at this time to create an environment that is attractive to criminals.

- This bill will interfere with protected First Amendment rights.

Adults have a right to freedom of speech and of association. On the Internet, today, to post on a blog is to speak, and to connect in a social network is to associate. A law that requires cumbersome age validation procedures before adults are allowed to join social networking websites creates barriers that must be crossed before engaging in totally benign activities that are protected by the First Amendment. This is a Constitutional problem that may make the proposal unsustainable.

In fact, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly invalidated laws that required age verification for access to Internet resources on First Amendment grounds. It is hard to see why they would treat this proposal any differently. To explain why, I refer you to the discussion of "Network Navigation and Flow on the Web" in the Report of Expert Witness Donna Hoffman (who was at the time a Professor of Management at Vanderbilt University) in ACLU v. Reno (Civ. Act. No. 98-CV-5591) [2] which is extremely relevant to this proposed legislation. Professor Hoffman says:

"Consider that requiring use of a credit card for admission to commercial Web sites will have at least three damaging consequences: 1) commercial provider efforts to explore fully the interactive nature of the medium will be impeded because even requesting comments from visitors could lead to liability; 2) individuals will no longer be able to navigate with flexibility and control in an active manner through cyberspace, because every mouse click could potentially lead to a burdensome request for identity; 3) individual privacy will be at risk because every person must now potentially register with every single commercial site she wishes to visit."

While the context is different, each of these arguments also applies to this bill. The new user validation process at MemeStreams, for example, is simple, fast, and non-intrusive. Many users sign up for accounts because they simply wish to respond to a single post in the system. If users are required to offer credit card numbers before they are allowed to post, they will have to consider whether or not they trust a website like ours with their credit card information, and they will have to go through the process of entering that information. Any other validation scheme I can imagine would be even more cumbersome. The end result would be that fewer people would inclined to participate in the discussions that occur on our website.

- Instead of protecting minors, this bill would restrict their freedom.

Minors, also, have a right to freedom of speech and of association. While courts have recognized that some constraints on First Amendment rights exist for minors in certain contexts, this bill would create barriers to totally benign acts of speech and of association. Minors would face an Internet that is closed to them by default, and they would have to ask parental permission for every online community they joined.

As someone who has operated online communities since the age of 15, it is hard to articulate the level of frustration and humiliation I'd have felt if I was forced get my parents permission for every single online community that I participated in when I was a teenager. The fact that online predators sometimes operate on social networking websites should not motivate us to remove minors from them any more than the fact that children are sometimes abducted from shopping malls should motivate us to require teenagers to carry a permissions slip on their person every time they go outside.

The First Amendment upholds some of the most core values of our society. By denying minors the right to engage in totally benign speech and association at their own discretion we set a hypocritical example that poorly prepares our next generation for the rights and responsibilities inherent in citizenship.

- The threat of online predators on social networking sites has been blown out of proportion.

The most frequently quoted statistic comes from an outdated study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who said that 1 in 5 children had been exposed to unwanted sexual solicitations online. The problem with this statistic is that the majority of those "unwanted sexual solicitations" consist of innocent flirtation from people in the same age group as the respondents. [3] "'A significant portion of what they are calling sexual solicitation is merely teens being teens,' said Nancy Willard, an online safety expert who helps schools develop programs and who was not involved in the study." Also, the study quoted here is from 2000, before online social networking websites of the sort considered by this bill became popular. [4] A more recent study by the same organization found a significant decrease in this statistic in spite of the rise in popularity of social networking sites. Most importantly, this study does not recommend that teenagers be excluded from participating in online discourse. In fact, it argues that "we need approaches acknowledging their independence and developmental interests." [5]

- There are better ways to address the problem of online predators.

The fact that the threat has been exaggerated doesn't mean that it isn't important. However, there are more appropriate ways to approach the problem. The recommendations in the study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children focus on education. This is a very logical conclusion. When I was young I was frequently advised not to talk to strangers, and to think critically about inevitable interactions with them. My parents, and the teachers who taught me these things prepared me to deal independently with a real world in which there are no absolute protections against predators and crime. If we seek to remove minors from the decision making process instead of arming them to take responsibility for it, we may do more harm than good.

Finally, the fact that I disagree with this proposal does not mean that I feel that operators of social networking websites are totally absolved of any responsibility for protecting children that participate in our communities. In fact, online community operators invest a lot of time and effort into policing their communities. No one wants to use a website that is overrun with criminals. Even running a site as small as MemeStreams involves cleaning up spam and addressing harassment. These are difficult issues that we work with every day, and major sites invest a lot of money in it.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope you will consider my perspective, and I am happy to elaborate on these points further if you wish.

Tom Cross