Don’t be alarmed: 29,000 sex offenders on MySpace

The discovery of many registered sex offenders on the popular social networking site isn't cause for new legislation.

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There are about 600,000 convicted sex offenders in the United States. As of this month, 29,000 of them had profiles on MySpace.

The number comes from a group of state attorneys general who threatened MySpace with legal action if it didn’t scrub its social network of registered sex offenders. In May, the company estimated that only 7,000 sex offenders had profiles on the site; the actual number, it found after deeper research, was four times as many.

MySpace has deleted the 29,000 profiles. But as Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, noted in a statement, MySpace can only associate sex offenders with profiles when the offenders use real names to set up their sites; there could be many other sex offender profiles the site doesn’t know about.

Is 29,000 sex offenders a lot of sex offenders? Cooper and other attorneys general certainly think so. Cooper says the numbers support the case for legislation that would require parents to consent to their kids’ signing up with MySpace. Currently, the site’s policies bar children under 14 from using the site. Under Cooper’s proposal, any adult who signs up with the site would be subject to a public records’ database search — you could submit your credit card number, say — for identity verification. If a minor wanted to use MySpace, she’d have to submit a parent’s I.D. info, and then MySpace would contact the adult by phone or mail to get approval.

The idea would seem to be tough to implement, and possibly crippling to MySpace and — because it applies to the alarmingly vague category of “social networking sites” — many others besides. (Is the local business review site Yelp a social networking site? How about Digg, or Technorati, or YouTube?)

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Before moving down that path, perhaps we should pause to consider how dangerous MySpace really is. There are 180 million profiles on the site — 29,000 represents just 0.02 percent. In other words, despite media attention to a couple of high-profile instances in which MySpace brought together sex offenders and their victims, MySpace’s investigation proves otherwise — that offenders represent only a tiny fraction of the total MySpace population.

Does this mean it’s impossible that your child will be contacted by a sex offender over the site? No. But the odds are quite, quite low. How do we know this? Because if MySpace truly had made it easier for predators to find and attack children, we’d have noticed a huge spike in such crimes. And we haven’t.

Take a look at North Carolina’s statistics on rapes committed against young people. In 1997, there were 665 rape convictions in the state in which the victim was younger than 15. In 2006, there were 615. MySpace made no difference at all.

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