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Microsoft Pushes Digital IDs for Kids Online

A Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) white paper suggesting that children get digital identity cards to verify their age and better protect them online. But not everyone is convinced it's the right approach.

"It's not 100 percent clear to me that there's a compelling reason to validate the age of kids going to a social networking site," Larry Magid, a technology journalist, child safety advocate and member of the Internet Safety Task Force (ISTF), told InternetNews.com. "Is the solution going to be worse than the problem?"

Microsoft's suggestion (available here in PDF format) came in July in response to the ISTF's call for solutions. The plan would require that government, schools, or private companies certify children's identities and ages based on personal documents like birth certificates.

That also does not sit well with security expert Tom Rusin, who is president of data security firm Affinion Security Center.

"I'm all for new technologies to protect children online, but the best thing we can do is ensure that as little information as possible about our children is exposed to the Internet," Rusin told InternetNews.com. "We find that once identity thieves get a piece of information, they work back from that to another and to another."

The white paper marks the latest turn of events as online experts and government authorities seek to find ways to better protect children on the Internet, particularly when it comes to social networking sites.

Microsoft told InternetNews.com that it has provided a copy of the white paper to the European Union as well.

Still, observers are skeptical.

"The only way to identify minors is through school and social security records and birth certificates," the ISTF's Magid said. "Birth certificates and social security records are off-limits by law."

Microsoft spokespeople did not return requests for additional comment by press time.

Microsoft's suggestion also may help to boost acceptance of its own digital identity offering, Windows CardSpace , and products from other vendors in the field.

Until recently, the market was deeply divided with a number of incompatible solutions. It began coming together only last year, through the Liberty Alliance's Project Concordia. The alliance, a consortium of major technology players, is working on demonstrated compatibility with Project Concordia solutions earlier this year.

Latest steps

The company's initiative follows months of efforts by U.S. attorneys general and a number of Internet industry stakeholders to help better safeguard children online.

The ISTF, which aims to evaluate technologies to help Web sites enforce minimum-age requirements, came about as a central element of an agreement in January between social networking site MySpace and a group of U.S. attorneys general after two years of talks regarding child safety online.

Those efforts followed reports that sexual predators were targeting children on MySpace.

The resulting child safety measures have been adopted by all state attorneys general except for Texas's, whose attorney general said he did not sign up because the proposed safety measures are not strong enough.

The ISTF is headed by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and enjoys strong industry support. In addition to Microsoft and MySpace, members include AOL, AT&T (NYSE: T), Comcast, Facebook, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), the Institute for Policy Innovation, Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC), the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO).

A number of industry stakeholders also plan to take up the topic of children's Internet safety during the Digital ID World conference in Anaheim, Calif. this week.

"A variety of identity management groups will hold their first public meeting [today] on issues like how to properly identify children's Internet sites and make them safe," Roger Sullivan, president of the Liberty Alliance, told InternetNews.com.