MySpace will act to safeguard teenagers

Md., other states seek to thwart Web predators

January 15, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

The online social networking site MySpace announced an agreement yesterday with 49 states, including Maryland, to protect children from Internet predators, something that experts called a good first step toward keeping young Web users safe but not a remedy to the problem.

"As the popularity of social networking sites continues to grow, the steps being taking by MySpace are essential to helping keep our young people safer online," Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, one of the attorneys general to sign the agreement, said in a statement.

The agreement outlines a range of measures aimed at protecting teenagers who use the site, at myspace.com - and keeping those under the age of 14 from creating profiles. They include:

Allowing parents to submit their children's e-mail addresses to a third-party registry to prevent those kids from using those addresses to set up profiles.

Making the default setting for profiles of 16- and 17-year-olds "private."

Barring users over age 18 from browsing the profiles of those under 18, or adding someone under 16 as a "friend" (with access to their page) unless they know the younger person's last name or e-mail address.

Agreeing to respond within three days to complaints about inappropriate content and to commit more staff to review photos and discussion groups, as well as block access to content labeled as mature.

Forming a task force to develop ways to verify the age and identity of users. Other social networking sites, as well as experts and child protection groups, would be invited to participate. A formal report would be issued by the end of the year.

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, praised the joint agreement as a first step.

"I don't think it's a silver bullet. I don't think there's a panacea here," he said.

But the commitment by MySpace to meet regularly to discuss potential technological solutions to these concerns was promising, Allen said. "In many ways, like so many of the other challenges we've seen on the Internet, technology is going to play a key role in solving those kinds of problems," he said.

A 2006 study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire using data from the missing children's center indicated that one in seven children is sexually solicited online, and one in 33 is subjected to aggressive solicitations, Allen said.

MySpace is the largest social networking site, but the attorneys general called on others in the industry to adopt these principles as well, Allen said.

Others pointed out potential problems.

Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist who studies online gatherings, said MySpace still might have difficulty monitoring older users who create underage profiles.

"It's obviously easy to lie in that situation," Wellman said.

Wellman and Avi E. Rubin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said that the agreement that allows parents to submit children's e-mail addresses to MySpace would be useless if kids have multiple addresses.

"Many teens would see that as a challenge to get around rather than a prohibition," Wellman said.

Rubin said, "A teenager can create his own e-mail address that parents don't know about in about two minutes."

And such a database of blocked e-mails would be very valuable information that would be targeted by hackers, Rubin said.

"That would be a database you would know are children," agreed Guilherme Roschke, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said the plan overall contained some good changes, including limiting the ability to use search engines to find private profiles.

The agreement states that MySpace will prohibit tobacco or alcohol advertising, but using algorithms to identify underage users could let someone direct advertising to children, Roschke said.

States sought changes in response to concerns about sexual predators, and the report follows two years of discussions between MySpace and the attorneys general, according to Gansler's office.

Last year, Gansler, a former state's attorney, introduced a statewide program intended to educate children about potential online dangers, including sexual predators and identity theft.

Yesterday's agreement was announced in New York City by attorneys general from New Jersey, North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York.

Investigators have increasingly examined MySpace, Facebook and similar social networking sites that allow people to post information and images on the Web and invite contacts from others.

Last year, New York investigators said they set up Facebook profiles as 12- to 14-year olds and were quickly contacted by other users looking for sex.

The multistate investigation of the sites - announced last year - was aimed at putting together measures to protect minors and remove pornographic material, but lawsuits were possible, officials said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Brent Jones and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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