MySpace, my attorneys general

The social networking giant teams up with attorneys general to combat online sexual predation. Unfortunately, it's not an easy fight.


Catherine Price
January 15, 2008 11:15PM (UTC)

Last May, the social networking site MySpace made headlines (and Broadsheet posts) for its work in creating a national database of convicted sex offenders to try to protect underage MySpace users from online abuse.

Turns out, MySpace didn't stop there -- according to Forbes, the company just announced plans to team up with attorneys general from 49 states "to announce a set of industry guidelines for keeping kids safe on social networking sites." Among the plans: quicker response times for complaints about obscene or abusive content, making profiles of people under 18 automatically private (i.e., you need to prove that you know the person before getting access to his or her profile) and "organiz[ing] a task force of Internet businesses, nonprofit organizations and technology companies to review and develop online safety tools," reports the New York Times.

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One of the trickiest things that MySpace aims to do, however, is to verify users' ages, so that children couldn't pose as adults, and adult sex offenders couldn't pose as kids. According to Forbes, the company said it has considered using a third-party service that would keep a registry of minors' e-mail addresses and then allow parents to add their kids' names to a list of children not allowed to make MySpace pages. But there are several obvious problems with this -- first of all, any kid smart enough to make a MySpace page also knows how to create a new, anonymous e-mail address. Second, from a privacy perspective, is it really a good idea to put together a list of thousands upon thousands of children's e-mail addresses? Who, exactly, is going to make sure that list stays secure? And if MySpace were to succeed in successfully blocking, for example, kids under 14 from using the site, who's to say those children won't find another less regulated social networking site to use?

I certainly don't envy MySpace in this situation -- I mean, the company already kicked off 29,000 users who turned out to be convicted sex offenders. One can only assume there are more. And while Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is quoted as saying, "If we can put a man on the moon, we can do age and identity verification," his comparison isn't really fair -- space travel seems bizarrely straightforward when compared with attempting to prevent thousands of anonymous people from lying. The most effective solution would seem to be requiring some sort of official identification -- a Social Security number, for example (credit cards wouldn't work because they're too easy to come by). But that, again, would raise privacy concerns.

So what's the answer? While I appreciate MySpace's efforts, it seems to me that the most effective MySpace safeguards might actually come from parents themselves -- having an open conversation with your kids about what to watch out for on the site, and making them feel comfortable telling you about anything inappropriate that happens. Do any Broadsheet readers have suggestions of techniques they've used with their own families? Or ideas for MySpace and the attorneys general to consider?

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Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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