Schools caught in internet safety dilemma

In the constant struggle to keep kids safer online, a new solution is emerging that enlists the help of schools in age-verification techniques to ensure that online predators are kept off child-friendly web sites. But some critics say this puts schools in a questionable role, because the information they provide can be used to target age-appropriate advertising to their students.

The solution in question, developed by an online protection service called eGuardian, is one of the latest attempts at "digital identification." eGuardian purports to block online predators from reaching children, making search engines and social-networking sites safer for students.

"We collect just the information we need to verify children by having the parents provide that information–parent’s name, child’s name, age, school, gender, and parent’s signature," said Rod Zayas, eGuardian CEO. "Parents then ask the school to verify that information, so a trusted third party is telling us that the information is correct. This is the basis of our security. We pay schools for taking the time to verify the information. Web sites pay us to help them protect children, and by saying they are more secure, they are able to attract more parents [and therefore more] children. They can also offer child-centric services without fear of attracting predators."

eGuardian keeps this identifying information offline, so "there is no chance of tying an eGuardian ID to an individual," explained Zayas. He added that schools can use his company’s service as a fundraiser by encouraging parents to participate. "If they do a fundraiser with eGuardian, 100 percent of the proceeds go to the schools," he said. "Schools can earn from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the size of the school."

eGuardian recently presented its solution to the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which was formed in January in response to an agreement between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general. The task force aims to identify effective strategies and technologies for creating a safer online environment for children and teens. (See "Harvard scholars to explore web safety.")

In eGuardian’s presentation to the task force, the company described its revenues as coming primarily from technology partners that use the eGuardian protection system for commercial purposes.

Said the company: "Our goal is to enhance our partners’ product offerings, thereby allowing them to charge more for this value-added service; we share in this additional incremental revenue. We collect a monthly fee between 25 cents and 50 cents per month per identity-verified member, based on volume. Alternately, for partners that do not charge access fees and [instead] rely on advertising, we also offer revenue-sharing models derived for this targeted advertising revenue. Our ability to provide identity [verification] allows for better targeted, and more appropriate, advertising to eGuardian-protected children, which has been positively received by the parents. Partners are able to charge more for the directed ads."

Children’s privacy advocates liken the services offered by eGuardian and other digital-identification firms to a sort of Faustian bargain in which parents–and, in this case, schools–hand over the chance to market goods to children in return for the prospect of shielding kids from online predators.

"The fear that companies engaged in the digital identification of minors will partner with market profilers and advertisers to support targeted advertising is real," said Nancy Willard, head of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

Zayas notes that if eGaurdian’s customers are membership-based sites, there is no advertising on the sites, and this does not change with eGuardian’s service. "We do not encourage our partners to display advertising. We do not sell advertising. We do not accept advertising for eGuardian. Membership-based sites pay us a monthly fee for each protected child," he said.
He continued: "If the site displays advertising, our agreement ensures that any ads displayed are age-appropriate. A 12-year-old should not see a gambling ad or an ad for an adult-oriented site. Sites can use the information we send them for that session only to know that the visitor is a 12 year-old boy. But they don’t know which boy, or even if it is the same boy who visited yesterday. They can’t resell that information to their advertisers, because there is nothing to sell. They can’t tie it to the eGuardian ID, because it is not the real ID–it is a key–and it changes every session. At best, they can tell their advertisers that, [for instance], ‘a hundred 12-year-olds visited our site last month.’"

Zayas compared the process to what happens when kids watch the Disney Channel.

"If you let your child watch the Disney Channel, or visit Club Penguin, you have every right to expect that no adult-oriented content or ads will be shown," he said. "You should also expect that the commercials will be targeted to kids. [Advertisers] know that the person watching is a kid, but they don’t know who–[and] eGuardian works the same way."

Willard still finds the practice objectionable. "It is an outrage that under the guise of protecting children from online sexual predators, companies are promoting solutions that will allow market-profiling predators to engage in more effective targeting of advertisements to children," she said.

But others, such as Microsoft Corp., disagree.

According to Kim Cameron, chief identity architect for Microsoft, "Working with identity providers, such as eGuardian, [Microsoft Windows’] CardSpace provides a solution to key industry concerns such as phishing, secure information communication, and online identity management. eGuardian provides the age of verified children as an Information Card that is stored in CardSpace. Children can choose to present the card to web site partners. This is a safe and reliable method for telling web sites they are working with a minor, without revealing any unnecessary information, and allows them to create safer environments for children."

Educators who spoke with eSchool News said they were uncomfortable with schools getting involved in the conflict.

"In my opinion, schools should not get into the business of sharing student information with third-party vendors," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. "In most jurisdictions, these vendors can request directory information on students as required by law and use it as they wish. Schools have no choice but to comply with that type of information request, but they should [refrain from] providing student information outside of legal requirements."

He added: "School systems need to ensure that student information is kept private as required by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Parents can make individual choices if they wish to use digital ID software without school involvement."

Marc Liebman, superintendent for the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., agreed with Hirsch. Even though solutions such as eGuardian’s could provide greater protection for kids, Liebman said, "schools should not be involved in making that decision… For me, the term ‘market profiling’ is a synonym for exploiting children, and that is unacceptable."

Liebman also says using school funding as an incentive for parents to participate puts undue pressure on them to release information.

"If we need to digitally identify young people, then we should only do so with a federal law in place that ensures this will not be used for market-profiling purposes," said Willard.

The Internet Safety Technical Task Force is scheduled to present its final report to the state attorneys general by Dec. 31.


Internet Safety Technical Task Force


Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

Nancy Willard’s digital ID blog

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Keeping Online Learning Secure resource center. Online learning is becoming increasingly popular, especially as fuel costs force schools to consider shortened schedules and have college students opting for virtual classes to save money. But while interest and enrollment in virtual classrooms rises, so do concerns about security while students are learning online. School IT staff already work around the clock to make sure their systems are secure and reliable; they can’t afford to have school networks vulnerable to attacks from outside—or from curious students who believe they are honing their tech expertise. Go to: Keeping Online Learning Secure