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Tech Industry

How to hinder, not help, social networks

iMega chairman Joe Brennan says digital innovators face increased risks because of politically motivated short-term fixes by state governments.

It is a sad fact of life that when rushing to do great good, we often create the potential for even greater harm. This may explain the potential fallout of the recent antagonistic stance that government in the United States has taken toward social networking.

Take, for example, legislation proposed earlier this year in North Carolina, which would require a "double verification" system for any social network admitting users under 18 years of age. Not only would the social network need to get parental permission for minors to register, but the sites would need to take the added step of verifying the identity of the parent giving his or her assent. Social-network operators could be criminally prosecuted if they did not institute the new registration requirements.

The intent of the proposed North Carolina law is to prevent sexual predators from using the vast young audience of social networks as a hunting ground. However, as proposed, it is an incredibly bad law on two counts.

First, the law would not create any additional safeguards for minors, even after meeting the new registration requirements. That's because the law only has the effect of reducing the number of under-18 members of social networks by raising the barrier-to-entry for minors. A shepherd doesn't make the flock any safer by reducing the number of sheep: he must get rid of the wolves that threaten it. But, by targeting innocent under-18 users and social-network operators instead of sexual predators, the North Carolina law would offer only a false sense of security.

We need to fully embrace technology as the way to better address potential problems, rather than laws targeting innocent Web users and companies.

Second, by placing Web companies in its crosshairs to force "supply-side" remedies to various social problems, government creates a disincentive for digital entrepreneurs. The question looms: with increasing threats of interference and prosecution, would it not be easier for Web innovators to move their operations offshore? After all, there is still ready access to capital regardless of location for worthy firms, and your users can reach you regardless of if you're in Mountain View, Calif., London, Beijing, or Bangalore. This kind of flight to other, less intrusive innovation centers would represent a terrible drag on the United States' lead in online innovation, and send the value created in jobs and dollars to places from which it may be impossible to get them back.

Governments in the United States should avoid long-term damage from ill-conceived, politically-motivated short-term "fixes" to online social problems by instead turning and embracing and innovation. America's ability time and again to grow innovative solutions is a more likely path to remedies than is overpromising, overreaching, and (ultimately) ineffective government action that sometimes, ironically, serves to make things worse.

For example: MySpace--the world's largest social network--this year implemented its own system for policing its user base for predators. The system it developed in-house cross-references users' personal data with various sexual offender databases. Suspected offenders are monitored or have their accounts deleted. With these measures, MySpace rid its network of almost 30,000 suspected offenders--out of a total membership of more than 100 million.

Most notable: MySpace launched this effort on its own, with absolutely no government prodding, and is a perfect example of what is possible when government lets Internet firms create innovative solutions for potential social problems on their services.

But, as no good deed goes unpunished, MySpace still felt the wrath of government, despite its laudable efforts to combat online predators. The attorneys general of all 50 states, represented by a group of eight--featuring the attorneys general of North Carolina, New York, and Connecticut--approached MySpace in May seeking access to MySpace's offenders list. MySpace responded that it was happy to provide the list, and asked only for the proper subpoenas, something the AGs could have done in a matter of hours.

Instead, the Gang of Eight turned to the media, accused MySpace of stonewalling and protecting child predators, claims the AGs knew to be patently false. Behind the scenes, of course, the proper subpoenas were being prepared, and within a week of their first request, MySpace supplied the list.

But, the abuse of the AGs bully pulpit--to beat MySpace over the head--showed that government doesn't need draconian laws to make things difficult for Internet firms. Even companies acting in the best interest of their users were fair game for opportunists seeking political gain.

It's time for government to take a good hard look at the (perhaps unintended) long-term harm it may be doing to American digital innovators and entrepreneurs.

The United States needs sound policy--not petty politics--to maintain and strengthen our position as the world's technology leader. We need cooperation between Internet firms, government, parents, and informed kids to protect against online predators. And, we need to fully embrace technology as the way to better address potential problems, rather than laws targeting innocent Web users and companies.

The state attorneys general showed their faith in technology when they sought MySpace's list. Too bad they did not show a little more faith in MySpace.