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MySpace Agrees to New Safety Measures

Written By David D'Angelo on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 | 1/15/2008

NEW YORK - Under mounting pressure from law enforcement and parents, MySpace agreed Monday to take steps to protect youngsters from online sexual predators and bullies, including searching for ways to better verify users' ages.

The hugely 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 deal comes as sites such as MySpace and Facebook have grown exponentially in recent years, with teenagers making up a large part of their membership. This 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 only state not joining the agreement was Texas, where the attorney general said he cannot support the effort unless MySpace takes action to verify users' ages.

"We do not believe that MySpace.com — or any other social-networking site — can adequately protect minors" without an age-verification system, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. "We are concerned that our signing the joint statement would be misperceived as an endorsement of the inadequate safety measures."

Monday's announcement was short on specifics about how improvements would be carried out. Skeptics doubt MySpace and similar sites can eliminate online predation because age-verification technology is difficult to implement and predators are good at circumventing restrictions.

Parry Aftab, executive director of Wiredsafety.org, a children's Internet safety group, said the agreement was a good first step but could have unforeseen consequences.

"There's no system that will work for age verification without putting kids at risk," she said. "Age verification requires that you have a database of kids and if you do, that database is available to hackers and anyone who can get into it."

Aftab estimates that 20 percent of teens have met someone online that they had never met in person, and there are numerous examples of sexual abuse arising from MySpace encounters.

On Monday, 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.

MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has more than 110 million active users worldwide, and Facebook claims more than 61 million active users.

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.

Over the last two years, MySpace said it has implemented over 100 safety and security innovations, including using new technology to identify and remove registered six offenders from the site and pushing for tougher laws in this area. The company also said that it hopes other sites follow its lead in pushing for tougher standards.

"We thank the attorneys general for a thoughtful and constructive conversation on Internet safety," MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement. "This is an industrywide challenge, and we must all work together to create a safer Internet."

In the past 30 days, Nigam said later in an interview, MySpace launched new technology detecting links to pornography sites. The technology redirects people who click on such links to MySpace's home page.

MySpace wants to share safety technology that emerges from the task force and other research, Nigam said.

"We cannot ever compete on safety, when it comes to the safety of our teens," Nigam said.

Facebook said it welcomed the increased vigilance.

"We are happy to work further with the states to develop and deploy strategies to protect kids online," the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company said in a statement.

Under the agreement, profiles for users under age 16 will be set to private so no strangers can get information from their profile, users can block anyone over 18 from contacting them, and people over 18 cannot add anyone under 16 as a friend in their network unless they have their last name or their e-mail address.

Anthony Apreda, a 12-year-old from Teaneck, N.J., said he lied about his age to create a MySpace account two years ago. He said he was 18, and noted that other kids frequently do the same thing.

"You just put an age and a date and you just put it on there," the sixth-grader said.

MySpace said it is creating a database where parents can submit children's e-mail addresses to prevent their children from setting up profiles.

"The concept is this: We want to empower parents to be able to tell companies like ours that they don't want their kids on our sites," Nigam said.

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 still possible, officials said. - AP

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