Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sunday, Jun 25, 2006

How Safe is MySpace?

Social-networking sites are all the rage with kids. Now a lawsuit accuses the most popular one of not doing enough to protect them from predators

As first dates go, this one wasn't terribly original: dinner and a movie, followed by a lot of time in a parked car. The two teenagers, who in mid-May chowed down at a Whataburger in Austin, Texas, before going to see Mission: Impossible III, certainly weren't the first guy and girl to meet on MySpace. And they are far from the only members who have fibbed on the hugely popular hangout site--her profile bumped her age up a year while he allegedly posed as a high school senior. But what makes the Texas encounter unique is that the 19-year-old guy, Pete Solis, got arrested for having sex with a minor, and the 14-year-old girl, whose name has not been released, sued MySpace for failing to protect underage users from online predators.

The lawsuit, which is seeking $30 million in damages, comes on the heels of another headline grabber in which a 16-year-old honors student in Michigan flew as far as Jordan before her parents realized she was planning to rendezvous with--and marry--a West Bank man she had met on MySpace. With countless parents now wondering what kind of liaisons their kids are forging online, law-enforcement agencies and elected officials have begun to step up their efforts to get teen-laden networking sites to improve their safety measures. Attorneys general of 22 states have called on the sites to set more boundaries for interactions between users, and this week Congress is scheduled to hold two days of hearings on how to make the Internet safe for kids. Executives who operate these sites acknowledge the concerns but say they lack the ability to monitor millions of daily exchanges and can't even verify members' ages. "There is no technology or national system that exists that allows us or any Internet company to verify the identity of people online," says Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer.

For parents who have only a passing knowledge of MySpace, let alone the ever multiplying horde of competitors like Xanga, Facebook and Bebo, it may be hard to understand why kids flock to these sites and how they can be more dangerous than old-school chat rooms. The reason: in chat rooms, predators have to engage in conversation to get to know people. But on sites like MySpace, they can access gobs of information by reading users' profiles, which tend to include photos as well as blog entries and bantering with friends. "It's totally addictive," Hannah Kranz, 16, says of MySpace. "My cousin gave it up for Lent." Kranz, who lives in Ferndale, Wash., says she interacts only with users she already knows offline and feels secure because, as she explained to her parents, the site lets her accept or deny an invitation to be someone's friend--and thus control who accesses the full content of her profile. Some kids, however, eager to appear popular (MySpace tallies the number of friends each user has), post bulletins asking everyone to befriend them, a practice, Kranz says, that is known as "whoring yourself." With nearly 85 million MySpace users and free accounts being opened at the blistering pace of more than 250,000 a day, it's difficult to keep track of who is responding to those solicitations.

The FBI says arrests of Internet predators more than tripled from 2001, to 1,649 last year, and there have already been more than 1,000 arrests so far this year. Experts note that even with this increase--attributed in part to more resources being thrown at the problem--the number of online-predator arrests is still small compared with the overall arrests for sexual assaults against minors, which in 2000 was estimated to be 65,000 nationwide. Even so, that same year a survey conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that nearly 1 in 5 kids had received unwanted sexual solicitations over the Internet. And a March 2006 survey partly funded by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported that 14% of teens have actually met face to face with someone they had known only through the Internet. Lately, there has been news almost every other day of someone getting busted for having sex with a kid he met on MySpace. And the newsmagazine show Dateline has turned online sting operations into the hit series "To Catch a Predator," which has led to the arrests of at least 96 men.

MySpace has long had certain protective measures in place, such as a prohibition against posting last names, street addresses and phone numbers. But the suit filed last week against Solis, MySpace and its parent company, News Corp., which bought the site last summer for $580 million in cash, notes that even though new members have to submit their name, gender and date of birth, "none of this has to be true." Indeed, while MySpace maintains that it prohibits anyone under 14 from joining the site and anyone 18 and older from viewing profiles of those 17 and under, Solis and the girl both managed to thwart these restrictions. Solis, who has no prior criminal record, says he hopes the charges against him get reduced to injuring a child.

After the lawsuit was filed, MySpace, which removes pornography as well as obviously underage users from its site, announced additional restrictions, including preventing members under 16 from being contacted by users 18 and older unless they know the kids' full names or e-mail addresses. That, of course, won't keep out (or keep safe) people who lie about their age. "The big question," says Randy Barnett, a contracts and cyberlaw professor at Georgetown University, "is what could MySpace do to effectively prevent the misuse of its website, short of not providing the service at all?"

Several state prosecutors have suggestions. Massachusetts wants the minimum age on social-networking sites raised to 18. North Carolina is calling for a 24-hour waiting period to allow screeners to review changes to users' profiles, which would make these dynamic sites a real drag. Connecticut, meanwhile, has talked to Defense Department vendors to see what technology is available to screen content for key terms that might raise a red flag. The one issue all the states seem to agree on is the need to verify users' ages.

Industry and government officials discussed this proposal and others at a social- networking summit last week in Washington. But there is no easy solution when it comes to confirming information about teens, only some of whom have credit cards or a driver's license. Industry watchers say Social Security numbers may not be a cure-all either, in part because of the global nature of these sites--the biggest of which, MySpace, said last week it is expanding into 11 other countries. Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal didn't accept all the naysaying: "Don't tell me it can't be done. If we can put a man on the moon, we can verify age." All 50 state prosecutors are scheduled to meet this week to discuss social networking, and at least one of them is actively looking into filing large-scale consumer-protection suits, according to a source who works with that attorney general.

The social-networking sites are hoping to avoid such an outcome, in part by urging parents to be more proactive and users to do more self-policing. "That's the real story here," says John Hiler, CEO of Xanga, whose 27 million users often report questionable content. "There are a lot of skeptics who say things like 'Youth can't participate in self-policing.' I think the jury is still out on that." In the end, they may be their own best defense.