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Hollywood Hates Kids

By Annalee Newitz

IT'S NOT enough that California screws over every nonrich kid in the state by having one of the worst public school systems in the country. The state has to come up with other ways to destroy our kids' futures.

I can think of no other justification for SB 1506, a bill recently signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let's call it the "Help Child Stalkers Act." It requires everyone on peer-to-peer networks to put their real email addresses on all commercial files they upload. You see, Arnie was feeling bad about how hard it is for those legendary online child stalkers to find out where to reach their victims. But thanks to SB 1506, all they have to do is lurk in chat rooms where kids are trading files, jot down some names and addresses and go to town. Even better: If kids don't include this stalker-friendly info with their media, their parents get fined. Awesome!

One of the major backers of the Help Child Stalkers Act was the Motion Picture Association of America. In its infinite wisdom, the MPAA pushed the bill because it figured it would separate out the pirates from the legitimate copyright owners. Obviously, a legit copyright owner wouldn't mind putting her personal contact information on the media she released into the wilds. Only a bad person who had stolen the media file would want to post it on P2P networks anonymously or pseudonymously.

So next time your kids are making music or art or a movie, and they have the urge to inspire people to buy it by sharing some of it with the world via one of the fastest and most popular methods on the Internet—P2P—just remember that old Arnie and the MPAA won't let them do that unless they broadcast their real contact information to everyone, too. I mean, think about it: Anyone who doesn't have a large media company address for their contact information shouldn't be sharing their work with anyone, anyway. And stalkers need love, too! Teenage garage musicians who put their work on eMule to drum up sales should obviously be compelled to give out their email addresses so that deranged weirdos can send them naked pictures.

But just in case some wily kids are smart enough to sign up for hotmail accounts with fake info and use those addresses on their shared files, security corporation VeriSign has another way to help stalkers find underage victims online. Partnering with the nonprofit i-SAFE, VeriSign is handing out little dongles in Los Angeles-area schools called i-STIKs. The i-STIK, according to VeriSign's press release, helps keep kids safe by "giving each a unique digital identity as they surf the Internet."

When kids plug the i-STIK into the USB port of any device they're using to go online, a chunk of code on the i-STIK broadcasts the kid's exact age and gender. So, when the kid goes into a chat room, everybody knows for certain how old he or she is.

The assbackward idea is that if everybody online uses the i-STIK, then it will be easy to tell when grown-ups enter teen chat rooms, because their dongle will give them away. Unfortunately, nobody—least of all age-conscious teens—will want to use these things. Kids will hack them to make themselves appear older or will simply discard them entirely. Indeed, anyone with an i-STIK that reflects their accurate age as being under 18 is far more likely to be victimized by pedophiles swarming to the i-STIK age beacon like Black Riders to a fire started by foolish, hungry hobbits.

The thing I really don't get is why the i-STIK identifies kids by their gender as well. What exactly are the terrible things that could happen if kids didn't broadcast their genders to the world? Girls might learn math and hacking in a nonsexist environment? Boys might visit chat rooms devoted to cosmetics and fashion?

When I first ventured online into chat rooms as a teenager, what I found most liberating about my experiences was that nobody knew my gender or age. They didn't judge me based on their preconceptions about what a 15-year-old girl should do or say. If I hadn't had a way to mask my gender online, I doubt I would ever have gotten interested in computers in the first place. At school, where everybody knew my gender just by looking at me, the boys never talked to girls about computers. Geekland was no-girls-land. One reason why this has changed so much since my teenhood is precisely because girls like me got online and had a chance to learn from people who had no idea what their genders were and therefore didn't expect them to suck at coding.

But if VeriSign gets its way with the i-STIK program, girls and boys will never have a chance to shed their preconceptions—and other people's—again. The Internet will be just like the real world: a place where your age and gender cannot be shed and therefore will always be used against you. And coupled with Gov. Arnie's Help Child Stalkers Act, people who judge you can also track you down. Welcome to the future, kids.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose gender and age are irrelevant.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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