MySpace puts child protection measures in place

MySpace is to put into place new measures to protect its younger visitors from predators.

The announcement comes after 2 years of discussions with a crack team of US state attorneys general, and several heated exchanges.

In May, for example, MySpace refused to hand over data on users who are registered sex offenders because, it argued, law enforcement officials hadn't followed the required legal process.

But now, more than 60 features are to be added to the social networking website to improve online safety on MySpace and, in the future, on other social networking sites too.

The pact has the backing of 49 of the state attorneys general (apart from Texas) and the District of Columbia, and also calls on MySpace to create a new Internet Safety Technical Task Force "to explore and develop age and identity verification tools for social networking sites", according to online reports.

Roy Cooper, North Carolina's attorney general and co-chairman of the task force on online safety told journalists at a press conference in New York: "This agreement today should set the standard for social networking sites across the globe that have been quick to grow but slow to recognize their responsibility for keeping kids safe".

"MySpace is tackling some of the riskiest elements of social networking", he continued. "Children can easily give these predators a road map by communicating personal information to them through social networking sites. The results can be horrifying."

Cooper announced in July that his state had identified more than 29,000 registered sex offenders among MySpace's registered users.

This was 400% more than the figure that MySpace had found in its own investigation in May.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett added to this saying that his state's online child predator unit found that eight of the 27 predators it arrested in 2006 were using MySpace to lure victims. He continued that in 2007, 31 of the 54 people arrested by this unit were using MySpace.

Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer at MySpace and Fox Interactive Media, claimed, however, that MySpace has been a "pioneer" in the area of online safety.

He pointed to the fact that the MySpace team now views all videos and images that are uploaded onto the site.

It also makes the default settings for all 14- and 15-year-old users "private". As part of the agreement, MySpace will automatically make the default settings for 16- and 17-year-olds "private" as well.

He told the press conference: "We have embraced a constant focus on online safety as one of the best ways to make sure users come back to MySpace. It is time to go to the next level ... [and] join forces with attorneys general across the country. We look forward to continuing to work with our industry ... to ensure that the bar is set to protect all young people online".

As part of the pact, MySpace will also allow parents to submit their children's email addresses to MySpace so that the social network can prevent anyone from using them to set up profiles.

MySpace has also promised to respond to inappropriate content complaints within 72 hours and to commit more staff and resources to review and classify photographs and discussion groups.

However, the pact does not settle discussions about how the site can authenticate the age of site users (the minimum age is supposed to be 14-years old).

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said: "There was a difference in perspective between the attorneys general and MySpace on the feasibility of new technology that would authenticate age and identity, as well as other areas where improvements are possible".

"We are not papering over or concealing our continued difference. We are going to work to bridge them. At the same time, we are going to continue to enforce the law against every child predator who threatens our children or anyone else on social networking sites."

The pact will also see MySpace obtain and constantly update a list of pornographic websites and regularly sever any links between them and MySpace.

It will also worl to make it more difficult for adults to contact children through the website. As part of this, it is to create a closed "high school" section for users under 18-years old.

And MySpace is also to introduce measures to educate both parents and children about online safety.

The newly created MySpace task force is to reports back to the attorneys general every three months, and recommendations will be made at the end of the year.

In the meantime, other social networking sites remain under scrutiny.

In September, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a subpoena to Facebook after investigators posing as young teenagers received sexual advances from adult users and were exposed to pornographic and obscene content.

He alleged that Facebook officials had frequently failed to respond when alerted to complaints.

Facebook has now agreed to take action against such complaints within 72 hours and is to allow an independent third party to examine its procedures for vetting complaints.