Xanga Gets Popped: Who’s Next?

I said back in May that if the social networking sites didn’t start taking meaningful steps to make their web sites safer, particularly where kids are concerned, that someone- namely the government- was going to start doing it for them.

First we had the so-called My-Space Law.

Now we have fines. Big ones. Mashable reports today that social networking site Xanga has been fined $1 million for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). What should be scary about this is the fact that Xanga is reported to have better privacy features than most social networking sites- probably because it is geared more for young people.

COPPA applies to the online collection of personal information from children under 13. It contains requirements for a privacy policy as well as the contents thereof. It attempts to ensure parental consent before such information is collected, with consent to be evidenced by a signed form, a verifiable credit card number, a telephone call, or an email with a digital signature. COPPA is the basis for the birth date question you see when registering for many web sites.

On the one hand, this looks to me like a warning shot across the bow of a bunch of social networking sites. Many will have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that keeps a user from content, but I’m on record as a supporter of any reasonable requirements that will keep kids safe on the often unsafe internet. Any reasonable requirement.

It’s an open question, however, about whether COPPA actually does what it is intended to do, since it seems the only requirement is to refuse to register someone who admits to being underage. If we lied to buy beer in the 70s, why do we assume kids will tell the truth when registering at web sites in the oughts?

According to Mashable, Xanga’s mistake was not checking the user-supplied birth date for those who checked the “not under 13” box. Checking the box does not eliminate the need to do the math on the birth date. So those who checked the box but supplied a birth date showing themselves to be under age should have been refused.

Checking the birth date is one line in the code. So unless there’s evidence that Xanga was trying to make it even easier for a kid to lie, this seems to me like a million dollar technical glitch, as opposed to a big win for internet safety.

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