SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - A familiar warning pops up on the computer screen:
"You must be 18 to enter." Does anyone really think this method keeps kids off adult sites on the Internet?
"All you have to do is say 'Yes, I am 18,' and you're in." says Janet LaRue, director of legal studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative activist organization in Washington. "It's an attractive nuisance."
Such tactics, although superficial, may mean vindication for "adult" sites - specifically those catering to alcohol sales, gambling and pornography - in the event that they are sued for selling to minors. Yet there are techniques to screen out youngsters, such as subscription-based adult verification services.
Even requesting credit card numbers from surfers is a step toward protecting site operators against liability.
The owners of adult sites admit that the warning screens, which went up when Congress voted the Communications Decency Act into law, are virtually meaningless. But the warnings have lingered, even though the Supreme Court struck down the CDA in 1997. A new bill, the Children's Online Protection Act - which mandates that a site check for an adult ID before it transmits material "harmful to minors" - seems likely to suffer the same fate. COPA is now before a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia, under attack from the American Civil Liberties Union as an infringement on free speech.
Meanwhile, the warning screens still guard the door, showing that a site owner is making some attempt, however feeble, to keep kids away. It's not much in the way of legal protection, but right now, sex, gambling and liquor-retail sites don't really need to care.
"There's no enforceable law that precludes kids from going on adult sites," says Jeffrey Neuburger, an Internet law specialist at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner in New York. The COPA legislation seeks to force adult sites to verify that visitors are not minors. But proving positive identity has always been a problem on the Internet, where surfers change their personas as easily as they change T-shirts.
Many adult sites now ask for a credit card number to certify someone's adult status. Some pledge not to bill the user, but this promise is not always honored.
"COPA says using a credit card is a means of proving you're an adult," says Jane Duvall, proprietor of Jane's Guide, a reviewer of sex sites. "I think that's discriminatory because not all adults have credit cards. After COPA, a lot of sites took advantage of the credit card [submission]. The bottom line is that this is how they make the most money."
But having plastic is far from proof that a visitor is an adult. COPA's detractors point out that kids can borrow or steal a grown-up's credit card.
They add that some young people have their own credit cards, guaranteed by their parents.
"Nobody that I know of verifies by birth date," says Duvall. "It's too time-consuming. Instant access is the key, because porn is an impulse buy."
Some sites refer users to adult verification systems, such as Validate.com or Adult Check. Of the dozens of adult verification systems on the Web, most require subscribers to fill out an application form that asks for a credit card number. Some sites purportedly accept birth certificates or other documents as proof.
Tantalizing pictures, hinting at what the subscriber potentially will be able to see, provide the incentive to complete the form. Subscribers then receive a password that allows them access to certain Web sites. Verification services receive a cut of the subscription fees, which usually run $16 per month.
Critics of adult verification systems claim that the sites are more interested in producing revenue than screening out minors, and that some of the services overcharge subscribers to boot. "The long and short of it is that the age-verification system is a disguised way of creating money," says Richard F.
Morton, a Chicago lawyer who specializes in Web clients. "We have to get rid of the age-verification scams. Most of the time, the person who enrolls in them gets not just one bill, but two."
While Duvall of Jane's Guide uses Adult Check and considers it legitimate, she also links to an umbrella site for teenagers called Scarlet Teen to divert them away from Jane's Guide. Within Scarlet Teen is Pink Slip, a girl-oriented site is run by Heather Corinna, who believes in providing a place for teens to have healthy communication about sex. Corinna also launched a similar site for boys, dubbed Boyfriend.
Family Research's LaRue - who recently filed an amicus brief in support of COPA - does not believe the adult Internet industry is all that upset about age-verification scams. She thinks the vast majority of sex sites are happy to lure kids.
She alleges that site metatags, hidden text read by search engines, carry kid-friendly keywords such as PlayStation. "After the Littleton, Colo., shooting, if you typed 'trench coat' into some of the search engines, you'd get taken to porn sites," adds Peter Nickerson, president and CEO of N2H2, a software filtering company.
It might sound senseless to draw elementary-school kids to pornography sites where they aren't likely to be able to pay up. But even if a kid stumbles into Jail Babes, a number-hungry Web site scores a hit, which in turn is used to ramp up ad rates.
If COPA is ready to be struck down and many adult-verification systems are really frauds, other measures to deal with the problem will be needed. Morton suggests having all adult sites reregister their domains - using the ".ad" domain for "adult." This solution assumes that Internet registrars want to classify or review sites, says LaRue. In any case, software that can determine a Net user's age has yet to come to light online.
Even if COPA is upheld, adult site operators, children's advocates and average surfers shouldn't expect things to get any simpler. "There will be constitutional challenges," says Neuburger of Brown Raysman. "People need to know what is criminal activity before they do it."