California Senate Bill Misses Its Goal to Promote Internet Safety

Stop Child Predators President Stacie Rumenap testified before the California Assembly's Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism & Internet Media on June 28 in opposition to a bill on social networking privacy. As an advocate for online safety, it may seem odd for SCP to oppose a bill on the topic. But a flawed bill is not a solution, and Senate Bill 1361 fails in its attempt to tackle the potential risks that arise when minors expose their home addresses and phone numbers on social networking sites. Worse, if the bill had been enacted, it very well could have resulted in unintended consequence of placing teens at greater risk by pushing them away from many of the age-specific protections which currently exist on social networking websites, Rumenap testified. Fortunately, the bill was killed.

The California bill would have restricted teens from posting their address or phone number in fields specified to share such information, like on profile pages, but left intact, the ability for a teen to share such information in any other field on a site, essentially undercutting the objective of the legislation. Furthermore, the address and phone number fields are often privacy protected, while other fields may or may not be, thus putting teens in greater danger of sharing this information to unintended audiences. And while at first glance it may seem like a good idea to restrict teens from posting their home addresses, there isn't anything wrong with them sharing such information with known friends when done so appropriately, and when, of course, the service doesn't exploit or share their information with other parties.

Quite the opposite is true, in fact. There are many legitimate reasons for teens to share their address or phone number on a social networking site. For example, consider the online services that enable users to send out party invitations to friends. Such invitations require an address for the party's location and a phone number to RSVP. Some of these invitation services are standalone applications, like Evite. Others are simply a feature of larger services. For example, Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites enable users to send invitations electronically. But in all cases, the invitation service falls squarely under the definition of a social network, and under SB 1361, that feature would no longer be available to teens. Same goes for the websites of schools, churches and youth groups, sports clubs, and organizations that include minors' addresses, and also allow socializing.

Not to mention, that on sites like Facebook, where most users provide their full name, city and state, would-be criminals don't need to find a user's phone number and address on their page. They can simply look up that information-and more-through public records like directory services and property records that are available to the public online.

And they do so primarily through their mobile devices, where they store information like names, addresses and phone numbers as a directory of friends' contact information. A February 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than 90% of American teens have a mobile device. Of those teens that have a mobile device and access social networking sites, more than a quarter of them access social networking sites daily, according to the same survey. Obviously, that number increases if you include teens who access social networking sites on a non-daily basis. The same survey also found that more than a fifth of all American teens only access the Internet from mobile devices.

The good news is even though more teens are communicating online through social networking sites their profiles aren't searchable by strangers or the general public. Included in existing safeguards are measures to keep minors from having searchable profiles-which is a key safety feature because it prevents adults from searching for children and promotes ongoing Internet safety education programs. For example, each time a minor receives a "Friend Request" on Facebook, they are reminded to consider whether they know the requester. While these types of features protect teens while they surf the pages of Facebook, the social networking experience appears no different from that of an adult. Teens can still communicate with peers, teachers, relatives, and other people that they want to be in touch with, resisting the temptation to move to adult areas of the site.

We all recognize that teens sometimes connect with those who want to cause harm, that they post information about themselves online so that others can see it and contact them. But studies show that sexual predation of minors most commonly involves a minor agreeing to meet an adult for the purposes of engaging in sexual activity. And when these teens share such personal information or agree to meet an adult for sexual purposes, they're doing so after having been groomed, in which a pedophile develops an ongoing relationship with a minor based of false trust developed over time. It certainly doesn't make it right. And the case can be made that those at-risk minors don't always understand what it means to be in a sexual relationship, or their thinking of what that means is different at 16 years old than at 35.

But at the end of the day, pedophiles don't track down the phone number or address of a teen, then simply arrive at their house and abduct them. Though certainly a horrifying scenario, that situation doesn't match up with the real threat of grooming. Tragically, this has been the cause of the overwhelming percentage of online abductions. Think for a moment of the Dateline NBC show "To Catch a Predator" in which a pedophile messages online whom they believe to be a minor with the intent of arranging an offline meeting.

As we know all too well, in the overwhelmingly majority of cases, teens don't meet their abusers over social networking sites. In most cases, victims know their abusers. And sadly, the abusers are often in a position of trust like parents, coaches, teachers or members of the clergy.

Which brings me back to California Senate Bill 1361. Educating minors of the real risks they face online is essential to keeping them safe, and parents shouldn't be encouraged to believe that restricting the display of certain information (especially in private, non-searchable sections of social networking sites) will make their children safer. Keeping teens on minor-oriented portions of social networking sites is an effective way to provide them with easy access to educational materials and is a far better approach to educating them about online risks than to incentivize them to switch to adult sites that do not offer such materials. And let's not forget that consistent vigilance, attention and participation by parents in their teen's digital world is a must.

About Stop Internet Predators
Stop Child Predators brings together a team of policy experts, law enforcement officers, community leaders, and parents that persuade lawmakers and the public to enact policies that protect America's children from sexual predators. Stop Child Predators is the only national organization that leads campaigns in every state to advocate legislation that prevents the sexual exploitation of children and protects the rights of victims.