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Witness: Credit cards not age verifying tools

A computer security expert testifies that some minors carry plastic, so credit cards can't be used to enforce the Child Online Protection Act.

PHILADELPHIA--Credit cards aren't a fool-proof way to verify age on the Net because youngsters carry plastic too, a computer security expert testified today during a federal hearing over a law aimed at curbing minors' access to "harmful" Web content.

Dan Farmer, head of computer security for ISP EarthLink, was the American Civil Liberties Union's final witness in its First Amendment challenge to block enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

The law makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to give minors access to "harmful material," essentially sexually explicit content that has no social value. Sites can avoid facing up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison if they check the age of each visitor who tries to access such content.

However, Farmer said most age verification systems are ineffective--including credit cards, the most prevalent form of ID suggested under the law. His testimony strikes at the heart of the Justice Department's (DOJ) defense of COPA, which was signed by President Clinton in October as part of a large spending bill.

"There is no method right now that proves the age of anyone on the Net," said Farmer, who is considered an expert in his field.

In cross-examining other ACLU witnesses, the government has alluded to the boom in online holiday shopping as proof that consumers are willing to use credit cards on the Net. Justice also has argued in legal briefs that sites will not be targeted under the law if they attempt to bar minors from viewing adult-oriented content, such as teasers of nude women on many entertainment Web sites.

But the plaintiff group of 17 online content providers, merchants, and other sites say they are not pornographers but still are affected by the law. They argue that asking for personal information before granting access to content will encourage visitors to turn away from the sites. The result would be fewer eyeballs for advertisers, witnesses have argued.

The ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others are asking U.S District Judge Lowell Reed, who temporarily halted the law in November, to grant a preliminary injunction against it on grounds that it violates online content providers' right to free speech. Even if the plaintiffs prevail in this hearing, the case could still go on to a permanent injunction trial or be appealed. If they lose, the law is set to go into effect February 1.

Farmer's role, however, was not to talk about the economic effects of COPA, but rather the feasibility of authenticating Net surfers' ages. Methods suggested by the law include digital signatures, adult personal ID numbers, and credit cards.

"All the methods used narrow down to one thing: credit cards," he testified. "You can legitimately have a credit card and be under 17 years of age. Credit cards were not designed to be age identifiers."

If online publishers began accepting credit cards from everyone who entered a site, they would have to store that information. Farmer was doubtful all that sensitive data would be adequately safeguarded.

"Very few sites on the Net [practice good security]," he testified. "I investigated various systems. A little over two-thirds of systems were easily broken into."

The government asked Farmer a series of questions about the feasibility of Web publishers barring access to only parts of their sites and the effect of COPA on search engines if these sites redesigned. But the Justice Department's cross-examination by Jason Baron was cut short due to time and will resume tomorrow.

"You have your own search engine going," Judge Reed quipped.

Day Three
Tomorrow the government opens its defense of COPA.

The Justice Department will call the following expert witnesses through Monday:

• Dan Olsen, a professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, who will testify that the defenses laid out in COPA are technically and economically feasible.

• Laith Alsarraf, president of Cybernet Ventures, which operates the online age-verification system AdultCheck. He will describe his company's and other systems.

• Air Force special agent Damon Hecker, who will convey the breadth of sexually explicit content available via commercial Web sites.

• Brian Blonder, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who will testify about the plaintiffs' claim thatCOPA will harm them financially.

Blonder's testimony is at the center of a debate over whether the judge will have to lock the public out of parts of the hearing.

Some of the companies testifying against COPA have submitted financial statements and other potential trade secrets during depositions. The DOJ would like to challenge some the assertions in open court via Blonder's testimony and by cross-examining testimony or depositions by David Talbot, editor of Salon Magazine; Norman Laurila, founder of A Different Light bookstore; and Mark Segal of the Philadelphia Gay News. The plaintiffs want companies' sensitive financial data under lock and key and the ACLU is fighting to protect their interests.

Some of the news agencies covering the trial, including USA Today, the Associated Press, MSNBC Interactive, the New York Times, and Wired News have retained an attorney who filed a motion to intervene on their behalf. The members of the media assert that the public has a "presumptive First Amendment right to access to these proceedings which is not outweighed by the plaintiffs' blanket allegations of concerns about purportedly confidential information."