MySpace acts to boot entries by convicted sex offenders

Profiles Web site to deploy new screening technology

December 06, 2006|By Mike Hughlett | Mike Hughlett,Chicago Tribune

After several embarrassing media reports of sex offenders prowling around MySpace, the popular online hangout said yesterday that it will deploy new technology to boot predators from its pages.

The move was widely applauded, but some MySpace watchers question whether it will be effective because sex offenders can conceal their identities online.

MySpace.com, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is at the vortex of the highly charged issue of pedophiles prowling the Web.

A North Carolina police officer was arrested this fall, accused in the rape of a 14-year-old lured to a purported police-ride-along program through MySpace.

Meanwhile, there have been several reports of convicted sex offenders submitting MySpace profiles - without mentioning their crimes.

No one would minimize the dangers of Web-cruising pedophiles. But whether they are as rampant a problem as portrayed by the media apparently is in the eye of the beholder.

Larry Rosen, a California psychology professor who has studied MySpace, has found that kids think reports of MySpace's possible dangers are overblown in contrast with parents who think they are underestimated.

MySpace announced yesterday a partnership with Sentinel Tech Holding Corp. to build a database containing names and physical descriptions of convicted sex offenders.

The automated system, due to launch in about 30 days, will comb MySpace for sex offenders, booting all traces of them from the site, said Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer. "They're deleted."

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, praised MySpace's effort. "I think it's a terrific idea."

The Web is an especially attractive venue for pedophiles because it offers a relatively low-risk, anonymous way to reach kids, Allen said.

A study financed by the center and done by University of New Hampshire researchers found that, in 2005, 13 percent of children ages 10 to 17 said they had received an unwanted online sexual solicitation.

A silver lining from that report: That 13 percent was considerably lower than the 19 percent found in 2000, the last time the center conducted such a study.

Rosen, who teaches at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has found that sexual solicitations on MySpace are less common than on the Web generally - at least as found by the children's center study.

In a study completed last summer, Rosen found that 7 percent to 9 percent of teens surveyed in the Los Angeles area were approached on MySpace for a "sexual liaison."

Those online messages ranged from "a gay guy tried to hook up with me" to "the guy was totally into me and he stalked me online which was very freaky." (Stalking, the study noted, "is extremely rare.")

Most kids dealt with such harassment "appropriately," blocking or ignoring unwanted sexual material, Rosen said. "Kids know how to handle it really well."

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are 593,000 registered sex offenders in this country. A recent report by the online site Wired News said 744 registered sex offenders had MySpace profiles.

While that is hardly reassuring, MySpace has about 135 million "user profiles," about 70 million to 80 million of which are individuals, Rosen said. The rest are politicians, commercial ventures, bands and the like.

Rosen said MySpace's get-tough attitude is not likely to have a great effect on determined pedophiles. "They can log into MySpace under whatever name they want. They can get around it."

Allen, of the exploited children's center, acknowledged that MySpace's new system "is not a panacea." But it is "a tool that can be used to validate and screen people using the site."

To bolster its sex predator shield, MySpace is advocating legislation that would require convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses with federal or state authorities.

Over the past 10 years, many states have adopted laws requiring convicted sex offenders to register their addresses with local law enforcement authorities.

However, a similar move with e-mail addresses likely would lead to opposition from Internet civil liberties groups fearing such registrations could set a bad precedent.

Mike Hughlett writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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