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bianca Talks Smut (and Age Verification)
by Thau! 19 Dec 1996

Thau! is a core troll at bianca's and is the author of The Book of Javascript: A Practical Guide to Interactive Web Pages. He has a large collection of exotic chickens and futurists.

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Q:   I've recently become the webmistress for an "adult store" and am not up to par on age-verification standards. I understand there are currently no laws on how I inform a user of content and how users attest to their age, but what are the standards?
- Babs

A:   Your question is a good, interesting, and timely one. As you probably know, the onerous Communications Decency Act (CDA), which sneaked its way into US law this February, was overturned in June by a Philadelphia federal court that deemed parts of the act unconstitutional. Had the CDA not been overturned, anyone in the United States who posted adult material to the Internet could have faced minimum fines of US$250,000 and two years in prison per occurrence - unless they could prove that only those over 18 could access their materials.

Unfortunately, fans of Internet censorship have not given up. The Department of Justice has appealed the Philadelphia court's decision by bringing it to the Supreme Court. The Court has agreed to hear the case and is expected to make a decision soon. In addition, New York state took matters into its own hands, and in early November passed the New York State Internet Censorship bill, which reads almost exactly like the CDA. Other states are expected to follow suit.

All this means that webmistresses and masters have to be careful about who sees their adult content. Unfortunately, there are no clear standards for age verification. Most adult sites do nothing more than add a gateway page that forces people to click on a link that says something like "I swear on my papa's panties that I'm 18 or over." However, the government may not consider this anti-minor measure to be adequate defense against litigation.

The best way to ensure the adulthood of your visitors is to sign up with an age-verification service. These services require visitors to purchase a password using a credit card, the ownership of which constitutes proof of adulthood. It usually costs visitors between $5 and $10 for a year.

Once a visitor has bought a password, he or she can use it to get into your site, or any other site that uses the service. Some people will already have bought a password from the service, but others will have to sign up. For each person who signs up through you, you get a certain amount of money, usually about half of what the visitor pays for their password. There are several different companies that do this, and many sites are signed up with several different services. Yahoo! has a pretty good list of these systems.

The upside of this method is that you'll be guaranteed your visitors are over 18, and you might even make a little cash. You'll also be acting in compliance with the CDA, which suggested that access systems requiring the use of a verified credit card, debit account, or adult personal-identification number would be in the clear. The downside is that your traffic will be reduced, because not everyone is going to want to shell out the $10 to get a password.

If a verification service is too draconian for you, but a simple gateway page leaves you fearing prosecution, there are a number of halfway measures you can take. For instance, you might register your site with some of the software companies that block and filter Web content for people. These companies sell software that blocks specific Web pages from being presented in a browser. Registering your site is free, and it further reduces the likelihood that minors will see your risqué materials. Again, Yahoo has a good list of these companies.

Another halfway (and half-baked) measure is the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to give content providers a way to self-rate the content of their sites. When you take the survey from the Recreational Software Advisory Council, you'll get a special code to stick on your pages. If a browser that supports PICS codes - such as Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 - visits your site, it will check your rating before displaying it. Unfortunately, if you have the PICS filtering turned on in MSIE 3.0, you can't see any sites that haven't put a code on their page, which is just about all of the sites on the Web. This little problem renders PICS almost useless. Since nobody turns their PICS option on, there's not much reason for a webmistress to use it.

As you can see, there's a thin spectrum of steps you can take to keep minors out of your site. Which method you embrace depends mostly on how paranoid you are about litigation. Right now, the Web is still openly smutty. If that changes, we here at bianca's Smut Shack will most likely pick a random age-verification service, and hope we don't lose too many friends because of the fee. Let's keep our fingers crossed. Thanks for the question, and remember ... bianca loves you!

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