My recent posting about child abuse concerns inherent in "$100 laptop" distribution in the developing world elicited strong responses both in favor and against my position. A new report about the ties between a live Webcam chat site, Stickam.com, and a large online pornography conglomerate underlines the seriousness of these risks, hitting us close to home here in the United States.
Child safety advocates have been concerned about Stickam.com, which allows its 600,000 users ages 14 and over to interact via unmoderated live Webcam chats. The New York Times reports in an article "Accuser Says Web Site for Teenagers Has X-Rated Link" that Stickam is owned by Advanced Video Communications (AVC), whose owner also runs DTI Services, a vast network of Web sites offering live sex shows over Webcams.
Common sense tells most parents that the whole idea of live video chats involving minors is a ridiculously risky business to start out with. As Stickam's corporate relationships are being untangled in the press, a parent's visit to the site reveals that there is already plenty to be worried about.
My first question is where did the "age 14 and older" guideline come from? What possible reason could there be for anyone under age 18 to interact in live, unfiltered audio/video chat with online strangers or "friends?" No matter where the age restriction is set, it is blatantly unenforced. Stickam's FAQ says, "While Stickam has established rules keeping children under the age of 14 from becoming a member, it is easy for children to lie about their age and thus gain access to content which may be inappropriate and unintended for them. It is up to parents to properly supervise their children's online activities."
The worries escalate from there, especially as one considers the possible uses of the videos put up on the site. Our known concerns about individual online predators now need to be expanded to include commercial interests. Stickam truly redefines the meaning of "public exhibition."
"Any Personal Information (including video content) that you disclose on the Website (for example, on message boards or chat rooms, or within your personal profile page) becomes publicly available and can be collected and used by others. Your account name and other profile information (but not your email address) is displayed to other internet users when you upload videos or send messages through the Website, and you can be contacted by other users who send you comments. Any videos or other content that you submit to the Website (including any Personal Information contained therein) may be distributed through the internet and other media."
Does this mean that a 14-year-old's Webcast make-out session (or worse) can be incorporated into an "American Teens Gone Wild" video sold worldwide? Could Stickam channels be fed to paying customers on DXLive or other adult sites? Think of all the stupid things each of us did as teens that thankfully faded into the past. Now in a highly sexualized environment, young teens are giving up their personal privacy to create online videos that will live on indefinitely to be used by anyone, for any purpose.
It's hard to know how far the abuses of this technology and networked community could go. When I read the the Times report I was struck by the fact that Stickam is "free" to users and generates no apparent recurring revenue, while DXLive's sex shows generate $220,000 a day. What is the commercial purpose of Stickam? Where are the lines between these two businesses? And how far could our kids--any kids--get pulled into this web?
As far as protection goes, it seems that families are on their own. I will continue to follow this story as it develops, and I plan to follow up with additional commentary from privacy and security experts. I empathize with every parent's worry and the fact that it takes a lot of work to keep on top of new sites as they come online. Stickam has crossed a line that I believe warrants government investigation. We must not settle for a world where professional pornographers have unmediated access to children.