Google, Verizon, Others in New Child Safety Push

WASHINGTON — A far-ranging coalition of IT and telecom firms, advocacy organizations and other stakeholders this morning unveiled a broad set of recommendations for how to protect children online.

The new report from the Point Safe, Click Smart task force calls for a lax regulatory approach, emphasizing the importance of educating children and their parents about online safety.

The task force, which was spearheaded by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), drew on a diverse group of participants, including Yahoo, Symantec and the National Parent Teacher Association.

“The Internet is such a complex space, the fact that the group was able to stay together from beginning to end, tackle some tough issues and overcome some tough issues really speaks to the importance of this work,” Torie Clarke, Comcast’s senior adviser for communications and government affairs, said at an event on Capitol Hill this morning presenting the group’s report.

Strange bedfellows indeed. To Clarke’s left sat top lobbyists from Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG).

“When you look at the industries that are represented they are fierce competitors in many specific areas,” said Marsali Hancock, president of iKeepSafe, an Internet safety coalition.

Among its recommendations, the Point Safe, Click Smart task force is calling for the president or Congress to designate a federal agency to take the lead on online safety, coordinating various policy efforts and promoting education and awareness.

“It’s important that we have that kind of coordination, because it really kind of brings in the various stakeholders, including Congress, child safety advocates, companies that cross all parts of the ecosystem,” said Pablo Chavez, Google’s managing public policy counsel.

The new push comes amid studies indicating that children are the fastest-growing segment of the online population. Earlier this week, Nielsen released an analysis that found that the time children between the ages of two and 11 spend online increased 63 percent over the last five years.

The report asks Congress to step up funding for digital literacy programs and other initiatives that both help children steer clear of predators and inappropriate content, and help train parents to take a more active role in talking with their kids about online safety.

“Parents need help to be able to ask the right questions,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said in opening remarks this morning. Shimkus indicated that he is supportive of legislation that would increase funding for online safety programs and law enforcement, as the task force recommends.

What the task force does not support, however, is an over-zealous legislative effort to clamp down on what content can be viewed by whom, and in what circumstances. Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank that generally promotes deregulation in the telecom and technology sectors.

As an example of overreaching policy, Thierer cited the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, which never made it to law, but would have barred access to social networking sites in some public computing facilities.

Instead, as is often the case when Web firms defend their online marketing practices in the face of privacy concerns, the task force is emphasizing education, calling on policymakers to revise school curricula to highlight safe Internet practices.

“We can’t say enough about education in this space,” said Chavez. “If you don’t have education, and you don’t know how to operate in that space, you’re illiterate.”

The report discusses the potential of various technical approaches to protecting kids, such as content filtering, monitoring software and age verification. It concludes that the technologies, while in some cases helpful, are generally immature, lacking standardization and often resulting in unintended consequences, such as blocking legitimate content or eroding trust between child and parent.

Chavez and others also stressed the ways that people are interacting with the Internet are changing. Smutty content is bad enough, but the rise of social networking sites where kids build digital monuments to themselves, complete with pictures, videos and blogs detailing their most intimate thoughts has compounded the challenge of online safety.

“We have to help them to make wise choices about the content they access and the content they post,” said Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.

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