MySpace, the country’s largest social-networking Web site, has agreed with attorneys general of 49 states to take new steps to protect children from sexual predators and bullies on its site. MySpace also agreed to lead a nationwide effort to develop technology to verify the ages and identities of Internet users. The popular online hangout will create a task force of industry professionals to improve the safety of users, and other social-networking sites will be invited to participate.
“We must keep telling children that they’re not just typing into a computer. They’re sharing themselves with the world,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. The exponential growth of sites such as MySpace and Facebook, with teenagers making up a large part of their membership, has created a new potential venue for sexual predators who lie about their age to lure young victims and for cyber bullies who send threatening and anonymous messages. The sites allow any Internet user to create a profile to display personal information and build networks of friends online.
MySpace, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has more than 110 million active users worldwide. Facebook, founded and headed by 23-year old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, claims more than 61 million active users.
The only state not joining the agreement was Texas, where the attorney general said he cannot support the effort without an agreement by MySpace to take action to verify users’ ages. Examples abound in recent news articles of MySpace being used to attract youngsters who are then subject to abuse.
On January 14, 2008, prosecutors in Queens announced that two girls younger than 15 were lured via MySpace to the home of a couple who allegedly plied them with alcohol, engaged them in group sex and took them to a strip club where the girls danced on stage.
A 15-year-old girl from Texas was allegedly lured to a meeting, drugged and assaulted in 2006 by an adult MySpace user.
And a 13-year-old girl in Missouri hanged herself in 2006 after receiving mean messages on MySpace she thought came from another teen that actually were sent as a hoax. This latter instance is made even more troubling because the other teen’s mother was apparently an active participant in the hoax.
Investigators have grown increasingly interested in the sites in their search for sexual offenders. New York investigators said they set up Facebook profiles last year as 12- to 14-year olds and were quickly contacted by users looking for sex.
Facebook reached an agreement with the New York Attorney General’s office, after subpoenas were served, wherein it promised to respond more speedily to complaints about sexual messages and to warn users in stronger language that the site could not guarantee children’s safety.
Under the agreement reached with MySpace, profiles of users under 18 will automatically be set to “private,” preventing casual browsers from seeing them. Parents who do not want their children using the site will be able to submit their children’s e-mail addresses to MySpace, which will prevent users of those addresses from creating profiles. MySpace will hire a contractor to identify and remove pornographic images and links to pornographic sites from its Web site.
But none of these measures are foolproof. Children can create new e-mail addresses that their parents do not know about; adult strangers could obtain enough information about children to get past the site’s safeguards; pornographic links spring up as quickly as they can be removed.