- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Roy Cooper, attorney general of North Carolina, calls them “the new mall.” Adam Thierer of the Center for Digital Media Freedom calls them “digital town squares.”

Social networking sites such as MySpace.com have sprouted up all over the Internet. MySpace alone has 85 million profiles, with 54 million unique users, making it the most trafficked of the social networks.

MySpace users can share personal information, interact with other users, keep an online public journal and listen to new music. A typical MySpace profile consists of at least one picture, the user’s account name, information about the user’s location, likes and dislikes, messages from other users and links to various other Web sites, including Web logs.

Members can join groups to raise awareness and money for government and political groups, nonprofit and philanthropic activities, and religious organizations.

But critics see danger in cases such as that of 16-year-old Katherine Lester. The Michigan teen was described by her father as “a good girl” with whom he “never had a problem.”

That was before she met Abdullah Jimzawi, 20, on MySpace and tried to visit him in Israel. She was found in Jordan and sent back to the U.S.

At the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) Dialogue on Social Networking Web Sites, Arnold E. Bell, the unit chief of the FBI’s Innocent Images unit described the harm that teenagers can cause each other through MySpace.

Last week, a Texas woman and her 14-year-old daughter filed a lawsuit, Jane and Julie Doe v. MySpace and Pete Solis. Mr. Solis, 19, was charged with sexually assaulting the girl after meeting her on MySpace and arranging a meeting. The $30 million lawsuit says MySpace didn’t do enough to verify its users’ ages.

But Laura Gelman, associate director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, says that although MySpace is liable for what occurs when users are on the site, the company cannot necessarily be blamed for what users do offline.

In response to complaints about the lack of security on MySpace, its parent company, Fox Interactive Media, has taken steps to increase safety. In May, the company hired Hemanshu Nigam, formerly an online security executive at Microsoft, as its chief security officer.

MySpace has changed several policies governing minors’ use of the site. Minors can now block their profile so that other users cannot see it unless they know that user. Users older than 18 cannot contact users ages 14 to 15 unless they know that user’s full name or e-mail address, information that’s not supposed to be provided in user profiles.

Despite enhanced safety measures, MySpace is not completely safe from predators. Frank Kardasz of the Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said at the NCMEC conference that the current “challenge comes from trying to filter out the criminals who use the services with evil intent.”

Mr. Kardasz said he reminds users that “while most people who use the social networking sites are probably friendly and law-abiding, it is difficult for anyone to immediately tell the good people from the bad.” He likened the Internet to Halloween, because “people are not always who they appear to be.”

Many at the NCMEC conference suggested age verification as a tool to make MySpace more safe. However, John Cardillo, chief executive officer of online security firm Sentry, said that with current technology, it is impossible to verify the age of anyone younger than 18, because the type of records used to complete this process for adults don’t exist for teenagers. Most teenagers don’t pay taxes, own homes or make other major purchases in their own names, he pointed out.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told the NCMEC conference that “if we have systems of restriction that depend on age, there needs to be age verification.”

MySpace requires users to be 14 to become registered members, but it relies on users to be honest in reporting their age. MySpace does have an outlet for reporting underage users, but the company still must attempt to verify users’ ages before deleting their accounts.

NCMEC panelists said a key problem that parents have in dealing with their children’s MySpace use is that teenagers will not always do as they are told.

Stephen Carrick-Davies, chief executive officer of Childnet International, reminded the NCMEC conference of Crane’s Rule: “There are three ways to get something done: do it yourself, hire someone, or forbid your kids to do it.”

Others at the NCMEC event suggested that if teens aren’t allowed on MySpace or the other big social networking sites, they will find ways to meet online through other, less secure venues.

Some parents are taking a proactive approach to the perceived MySpace problem, using technology to monitor their teens’ Internet use. There is software that can show parents which sites their teens have visited and others that can track individual MySpace profiles.

But Tim Lordan, the executive director and counsel of the Internet Education Foundation, asked attendees at the NCMEC conference: “What kind of relationship do you set with your teens once you start spying on them?”

Mr. Nigam took a different approach, saying that “what’s really important is that parents engage in a dialogue with their teens,” regardless of the method they use.

Mr. Nigam also said that MySpace is developing pamphlets for parents and user manuals for law-enforcement officials, so that older generations can understand the best approach to keeping children safe.

But some noted the importance of old-fashioned communication.

Ernie Allen, the president and CEO of NCMEC, closed last week’s conference by saying: “If parents aren’t telling their kids they love them, someone on the Internet will.”

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