States scrutinize minors' security on MySpace
The girl is 11 and from Connecticut. The man is 23, from New Jersey. They met on MySpace, the social networking website, in 2005.
Last Tuesday, the man was sentenced 14 years in prison for using MySpace to set up a sexual encounter with the girl.
It was one of a half-dozen documented cases this past year alone in which older men used such Internet sites to set up sexual encounters with minor girls in Connecticut. There are dozens of similar stories in every state in the Union, as well as frustration in law enforcement that the federal government isn't doing more to stop it.
As a result, Connecticut has become the first state in the nation to introduce legislation that would require MySpace, other social networking sites, and chat rooms to verify the ages of their users. Any postings by those under 18 would require parental permission. Failure to comply would result in a fine to the Internet company of $5,000 per incident.
The goal is for the law to become a model for national legislation. As many as 20 state attorneys general are now considering similar bills.
"The basic idea here is that the parents should be empowered, and they should be put back in control if their children are below a certain age," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who's leading the fight for this type of legislation in Connecticut and around the country. "That's why age verification along with parental permission is key."
While sites like MySpace and Friendster are designed to let users share ideas with friends and make new friends, critics say it's also a way for potential criminals to make contact. But MySpace, with more than 100 million users worldwide, insists it's committed to protecting teens online. And it has set up an array of tools to help, including blocking software.
However, MySpace is opposed to the Connecticut bill, saying it is "well intentioned" but "not the answer." In a statement, MySpace's chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam, said, "The most effective means to protect teens online is through a combined approach involving features and tools to make our site safer, educating our users and their parents, and working collaboratively with online safety organizations."
Still, in response to previous criticism and federal legislation, MySpace has started working with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to verify users' names against lists of convicted sex offenders. It also has limited the site to people 14 and older and set up a special restricted section for 14- and 15-year-olds.
The site has also given users the option of blocking any visitors to their profile unless they're invited in. And MySpace's help page offers an array of answers to questions like: "Someone on MySpace is bugging/harassing/ threatening me – what can I do about it?" Or "How do I remove my child's profile from MySpace.com?"
While critics say these actions are well intentioned, they also contend they fall far short of what's needed. Their primary complaint is about a lack of verification to determine if users are giving the correct age. As for checks against state lists of sex offenders, critics say they're "useless" if a predator is using a false identity.
"With all due respect to MySpace, there are very few convicted sex offenders that are going to go online with their true identity if they're trolling for victims," says Attorney General Blumenthal.
The Connecticut bill would require networking sites to verify that a user either is 18 or older or has parental permission to have a profile. Dozens of Internet companies already provide age-verification tools. So this is how it would work: When a person provides information to a networking site, such as name, date of birth, or address, the site would put that information through verification sites, which would cross-check it against public records like driver's licenses, voter-registration information, land records, and local tax records. This process is already used for such things as online sales of alcohol and cigarettes.
"The technology exists; it works; we've tested it.... And if people want to use it, it's there," says John Monteleone, CEO of GrownUpsOnline.com, a networking site based in Southbury, Conn.
With such verification checks in place, it will be harder for criminals to use false identities online, Blumenthal notes. "That's because anyone claiming to be 18 can be cross-checked, and if they're using a false identity, it would be a fairly good sign that something would be amiss," he says.
But everyone in the debate does agree on one thing: Parents must be proactively involved with their kids if they're using the Internet. The websites of many attorneys general have tips for keeping children safe online. There are also sites – such as incredibleinternet.com, which was set up by Qwest Communications – designed to help parents navigate the online world.
"We should be excited by the personal, interpersonal, and intellectual growth that comes with the Internet's potential for creative communication," says Dr. Linda Young, a family therapist and consultant to Qwest. "But we also have to be sure it goes hand in hand with safety and responsibility and making sure that our kids stay safe."