[Dave Birch] The subject of identity infrastructure came up again yesterday and this led on to a discussion about banks, identity providers, attribute providers and business models. When we are thinking about identity infrastructure in the mass market, a very simple identity vs. attribute example often comes to mind. It’s the apparently simple case of age verification: how do you prove to a web site that you are over 18 or to an bar in the US that you are over 21 or to a bus company that you are over 65, or whatever. I think this is a pretty reasonable measure of how a system intended for the general public is going to work. Talking about this in the meeting, the example of Facebook came to mind, where there is an utterly prosaic, immediate and important use case. You have to be 13 to exist on Facebook.

Now, one interesting question is… why? Why do Facebook ban under-13s? I mean why not under-18s? or under-12s? I mean 13 sounds rather arbitrary and there’s no obvious reason for it that springs to mind. So I began to look for a rational reason for this, thinking that it was a Facebook policy. But it isn’t. The reason for this abitrary and capricious age boundary is, as I should have suspected, a consequence of government regulation of the interweb tubes.

Internet companies have set up the rules against under-age users because they must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), passed in 1998, which says web sites that collect information from children younger than 13 must obtain parental consent.

Obtaining that consent is complex and expensive, so companies like Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, reject anyone who tries to sign up using an age below 13.

[From Facebook Users Who Are Under Age Raise Concerns – NYTimes.com]

Unusually, across the spectrum of wise political steering in cyberspace, this legislation has not turned out precisely how the politicians and lobbyists intended.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unintended consequences for parents, educators, and the public writ large. It has stifled innovation for sites focused on children and its implementations have made parenting more challenging.

[From danah boyd | apophenia » Why Parents Help Children Violate Facebook’s 13+ Rule]

I realise that Facebook-13 seems like a very particular and specific issue, but I think it is entirely representative of a class of problems in the new, online world. The way that people talk about this issue illustrates—I would at least postulate—how they think about stuff like online identity at a deep level and is a rather useful guide to technologists and legislators.

In Victoria’s fifth-period honors English class, all 32 students said they had faked their birth year to gain access to one site or another… Jerry Ng, Victoria’s 14-year-old cousin, agreed. “It’s one thing to lie to a person,” he said. “But this is lying to a computer.”

[From Facebook Users Who Are Under Age Raise Concerns – NYTimes.com]

I love this comment, which is utterly revealing about how the so-called “screenagers” think about the world. A new ethics, discontinuous to our pre-post-industrial moral paradigm. Talking of which, perhaps an alternative to a sophisticated modern identity management system and the new mental models to with it is simply to clear the plebs off the playing field.

The Pope has warned of the dangers of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, saying that communication between people online must not stop face-to-face conversations.

[From Pope warns Facebook can’t replace human contact – Telegraph]

There’s a heritage to this kind of pedagogical panic.

Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit.

[From A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook. – By Vaughan Bell – Slate Magazine]

God knows what he would make to the newspapers I saw at Woking train station this morning. The front pages included a splash about whether bread is bad for you, voyeuristic photographs up a female pop star’s dress (I think she was a pop star – I didn’t recognise the name or, for that matter, anything else) and something about the X-Factor. All this at time when the eurozone is in crisis and people are being machine-gunned on the streets of Syria. But back to Facebook.

Whether Facebook is responding to changing social norms or, in fact, leading the charge is an unresolved question

[From FT.com / FT Magazine – Facebook’s grand plan for the future]

This is very important question. I think that people are disoriented about post-industrial society and confused about the fractal online/offline (or virtual/mundane) boundary. Facebook provides a way to think about some of these things. I don’t think it’s right to say that it it “leading” the change but I think it is fair to say that until a new model emerges, Facebook will continue to provide a kind of substitute. I think that we should have an identity infrastructure that does not have a mundane analogue, where you can prove that you are an adult or a child without disclosing who you are and that this should be the basic test of fitness of any proposed solution. At the moment, Facebook doesn’t provide this, because it’s still trapped in industrial age identity thinking.

Facebook insists on what it calls authentic identity, or real names. And it is becoming a de facto passport vendor of sorts, allowing its users to sign into seven million other sites and applications with their Facebook user names and passwords.

[From Rushdie Wins Facebook Fight Over Identity – NYTimes.com]

I’m sure it does. But doesn’t this have dangers associated with it?

The information leak can be exploited by social-engineering scammers, phishers, or anyone who has ever been curious about the person behind an anonymous email message. If the address belongs to any one of the 500 million active users on Facebook, the social-networking site will return the full name and picture associated with the account.

[From Facebook bug spills name and pic for all 500 million users • The Register]

Yet another good reason for not having your Facebook account your real name, as indeed I don’t (for either of my accounts). My point is that what Facebook has now isn’t the identity infrastructure we need for the information age, but unless someone else gets to work on building it, we’ll end up with what Facebook has and we’ll be stuck with it.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers

1 comment

  1. I know when Sony needed kids to re-register for as part of the problem they had with Play Station Network, there was mayhem as you needed to enter your date of birth as part of the process. No kid in the world had actually used their correct date of birth, because that would not have alllowed them access to all the over 18 games content.

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