Stopping MySpace predators

The recent headlines might send a chill up any parent’s spine:

Suspect Accused Of Using Facebook To Lure 15-Year-Old Boy. Seven Teenaged Girls Assaulted By Men They Met Through MySpace.Com.

Social networking Web sites, such as MySpace, Facebook and Friendster, are a virtual playground where millions of children log in looking to make friends near and far.

But the personal photographs and intimate details the online friends share with each other also create a vast online shopping catalog for child predators and convicted sex offenders who prowl cyberspace aiming to seduce children.

MySpace, by far the dominant site with 115 million members, announced recently that it had found 29,000 registered sex offenders on its site who had signed up using their real names. The company, owned by News Corp., previously had shut out 7,000 sex offenders it found on the site in January.

Now MySpace and other social networks are under mounting pressure to make their sites safer for children.

Several families across the country have filed lawsuits against MySpace claiming their children were sexually assaulted by adults they met on the site. And Pennsylvania’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit in June in Dauphin County against MySpace following its announcement that 44 Pennsylvania registered sex offenders were identified on the site in June.

The state has evidence that two of the sex offenders used the e-mail and instant messaging system, which may violate the terms of their release, and is asking MySpace to hand over transcripts of e-mails and instant messages.

Most recently, the attorney generals of all 50 states banded together to make a public joint request that social networking sites require greater parental controls and better age verification methods in the interest of child safety.

“We believe as good corporate citizens, they need to take greater steps to protect their users,” said Nils Frederiksen, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

“It boils down to something simple. If we can find 10-year-olds and predators who aren’t supposed to be on MySpace, I know (MySpace) can,” he said. “MySpace’s terms say 14 is the age limit. They should take steps to verify the age of its users.”

MySpace, however, says the company has no safeguards in place for age verification, in part because children don’t have driver’s licenses or other documents to verify their age that wouldn’t also invade their privacy.

The company has installed a system where 14- and 15-year-olds have their profiles automatically set to “private,” which means other users need to know the child’s full name or e-mail address to send a “friends” request that the child would have to approve. The site also has a new feature that prohibits any user from searching for people under 16.

A company spokesperson said MySpace wants to comply with Pennsylvania’s request for more detailed information on the two sexual predators at the center of the state’s lawsuit, but they want a judge to rule on how the company can provide the information without breaking the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was primarily designed to prevent unauthorized government access to private electronic communications.

Marc S. Friedman, a partner at New York-based Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross and chair of the firm’s Intellectual Property Practice, believes MySpace is being unfairly targeted by its many critics.

Friedman said a Texas court recently ruled that MySpace had no liability in a case where a 14-year-old girl misrepresented herself as an 18-year-old and ended up being sexually assaulted by a man she met on MySpace. He said the company appears to be going to great lengths to weed out predators on its site and parents bear some of the blame.

“It’s very prevalent in society today for parents to off load their responsibility on others,” Friedman said.

Susan Shankle, a clinical social worker in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and co-author of the newly released book, “What In the World Are Your Children Doing Online?”, said MySpace has never been a safe place for children.

“In my practice I am surprised at how many parents don’t think they can take electronics away from their children,” Shankle said. “As a parent you have every right to limit your child’s time online and let them know you will check their history. The earlier you set those perimeters the easier your life will be when your kids are teenagers.”