Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Great bill that might end up a dog’s (or cougar’s) breakfast

Posted by Dave Bath on 2010-02-08

The evil cackling you hear in the background is me thinking about how many harmless people could be locked away for up to three years if Nick Xenophon’s proposed legislation, with laudable aims, gets through.  Ain’t I a nice guy giving losers the chance to raise their concerns to government, and maybe keep their loser activities from becoming criminal?

The Senate Inquiry into the Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2010 got me wondering how many Australian women approaching or over "a certain age" (whatever that is) will have to delete their facebook and or myspace profiles, and start again with a new profile created from scratch, unless female behaviour has changed radically in the last 15 years or so.

Oh well, it’s an easy way to get rid of all the silly groups and pages they have joined!

Back in the mid 1990s, I wrote the analytical backend for FlyBuys, and came to know what one of the most common questions from members to the helpdesk was: "What year did I put down for my birthday?" – a question that didn’t get asked by males.

Now, the women asking this question of the helpdesk are obviously a subset of the set of women who lie about their age on such forms.  The rest of that set are those that:

  1. never needed to validate their identity to the helpdesk; and/or
  2. used a simple formula similar to:
    • Declared=Real-VanityDifference; or
    • Declared=VanityBase+((Real-VanityBase)/VanityFactor).

So, there are a significant number of women who lie about their age, and my guess is, if those women did it then, they probably did it when creating their profiles on social networks like facebook, even if they did read the fine print of the terms and conditions when signing up… after all, it’s a fairly harmless "fib" in the eyes of many.  My guess is that an even greater proportion of harmless women would lie about their age on facebook, because if they are single, and making their birth year available for searches by potential friends-with-benefits or more…

But now, that "harmless fib" might attract a 3-year stretch, if the false birthdate is visible to minors, which it will be if available to public searches.

So, from the "Object" of the legislation:

The object of this Act is to make it a criminal offence for a person over 18 years to intentionally misrepresent their age in communications with a person they reasonably believe to be under 18 years of age, whether:

  1. for the purpose of misrepresenting their age in and of itself; or

Yes, it’s an "or" in there, not an "and".  An offence is committed even without evil intent to form an inappropriate relationship.

While there are schedules with more evil intent leading to imprisonment for 5 or 8 years, the in-and-of-iteself misrepresentation offence is outlined in 474.40 of the proposed Criminal Code:

(1) A person (the sender) commits an offence if:

  1. the sender uses a carriage service to transmit a communication to another person (the recipient ); and
  2. the sender does this with the intention of misrepresenting his or her age; and
  3. the recipient is someone who is, or who the sender believes to be, under 18 years of age; and
  4. sender is at least 18 years of age.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 3 years.

OK, so if "carriage service to transmit a communication" includes using something like a facebook profile with a vanity birthday, then there are a lot of otherwise-harmless women affected, and if the definition does not include facbook profiles, then the bill won’t be able to hit those people who lie on their facebook profiles and don’t otherwise talk about their age – putting in a huge loophole.

So what is a "carriage service" and what is a "communication"?  Grovelling around it seems that the general definitions are usually as follows:

  • Carriage service: a service for carrying communications by guided and/or unguided electromagnetic energy.
  • Communications: includes any communication whether between persons, between things and persons, or between things and whether in the form of speech, music or other sounds, data, text, visual images, signals or any other form or combination of forms.

So, maybe you can get away with semaphore flags or sign language… maybe… but certainly if it isn’t transmitted as video

Of course, any explicit defence trying to define a otherwise-harmless "vanity" age (e.g. a woman saying she is 39 when she is 45) going to end up a dog’s (or perhaps cougar’s) breakfast.

As you cannot change your birthdate in facebook, those who have a "vanity birthday" for public consumption, and want to stay legal, will have to delete and restart their facebook accounts all over again, or lobby facebook to be able to change their birthday (which means admitting breaching the terms and conditions when creating their account).  Dunno about myspace or other similar services.

Anybody care to guess about how many profiles would have to be dropped?  Absolute numbers?  Proportions by an age/gender demographic segmentation?

Again, I’ll note the intent of the bill, to come down hard on those trying to trap minors into inappropriate relationships, is a darn good one, and if vanity-afflicted folk are disadvantaged, I’m not at all displeased.  I’m just having a darn good giggle.

If you are worried about this legislation affecting you, even though I have no sympathy for you, even though I reckon you are a loser, I’ll tell you to get your concerns into by 2010-02-19.  By your reckoning, given that it is 2010-02-08 as I’m typing, you’ve probably got 7 days!


2 Responses to “Great bill that might end up a dog’s (or cougar’s) breakfast”

  1. Why is there an automatic assumption that filling in a biographically incorrect date of birth on non-essential forms is related to vanity?
    Telling an online data gathering entity that you are either 101 years of age or a 2 year-old toddler is one way of ensuring that name, address and D.O.B. are not collated in a way that makes identity theft easy.
    I also know of at least one person who also gives their country of residence as Afghanistan simply because that is usually the first country listed in the multiple choice box found in many online forms.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Why? Because of the empirical evidence I had when writing FlyBuys’ analysis tools, when you would have expected that a higher proportion of males would have had a greater awareness of and paranoia about information security issues, making vanity the more likely option (unless there was a male tendency to stick to a simple formula for calculating their notional age). Mind you, the legislation is aimed at a much nastier reason for lying.

    I’ll also state again, the terms and conditions for the facebook service at least ask you to confirm the accuracy of the birthdate. If you don’t like the terms and conditions, it’s simple… don’t sign up.

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