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Internet Fears Seen as Overblown

Task Force Dismisses Authorities' Calls for Ways to Protect Children

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A task force charged with assessing technologies to protect children from unwanted contact online has concluded that no single approach is foolproof and that parental oversight is vital.

The Harvard University-led panel, in a report released Jan. 14, dismissed prospects for age-verification technologies, the approach favored by many law-enforcement officials who had pushed for the formation of the task force.

The yearlong Internet Safety Technical Task Force also played down fears of Internet sexual predators who target children on social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

While citing other dangers such as online bullying, the panel said cases of predators typically involved youths well aware they were meeting an adult for sexual activities. Technology can be a component in the strategy to protect minors online, but Internet companies "should not overly rely upon any single technology or group of technologies as the primary solution," the task force said.

The task force was headed by Internet scholars at Harvard University and grew out of an agreement that MySpace reached with most state attorneys general a year ago. Members of the panel include Internet service companies and nonprofit groups, such as those focused on children's safety.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal criticized the report for relying on "outdated and inadequate" research to downplay the threat of predators. Mr. Blumenthal said the task force should have made more specific recommendations for implementing and improving technologies.

Parry Aftab, a child-safety advocate with task-force member WiredSafety.org, said the group produced a report that essentially "we could have done without spending a year. We could have said there isn't enough research out there."

But she said she agreed with its conclusions: Children are typically at risk because they put themselves at risk, rather than because they are tricked, and technology isn't enough to address that.

Vol. 28, Issue 18, Page 4

Published in Print: January 21, 2009, as Internet Fears Seen as Overblown
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