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 watch over its operations, 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 venue for sexual predators who lie about their age to lure young victims and for cyber bullies who send threatening and anonymous messages.
But Monday’s announcement was short on specifics about how improvements would be carried out. Skeptics are doubtful that MySpace and similar sites can eliminate the problem 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.
A 15-year-old girl from Texas was allegedly lured to a meeting, drugged and assaulted in 2006 by an adult MySpace user. In another case, a man got 14 years in prison for using MySpace to set up a sexual encounter with an 11-year-old Connecticut girl. A 16-year-old New York girl ran away to Puerto Rico with a man she met on MySpace.
And a 13-year-old girl in Missouri hanged herself in 2006 after receiving mean messages on MySpace from a person she thought was another teen, but it later turned out that the messages were all a hoax.
The only state not joining the agreement was Texas, where the attorney general said he cannot support the effort unless it takes action to verify people’s 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 enforcement of the inadequate safety measures.”
MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has more than 200 million registered 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.
“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.”
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 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.
MySpace said it was combing through sex offender registries to identify predators, who would then be kicked off the site. But sex offenders are unlikely to open an account under their real names, as are underage children.
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.
“When people go on MySpace they lie about their age. Everyone lies about their age,” the sixth-grader said. “You just put an age and a date and you just put it on there.”
MySpace said it is in the process of creating a database where parents can submit children’s e-mail addresses to prevent their children from setting up profiles.
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.
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