MySpace faces fresh controversy over sex offender issue

Conn. AG subpoenas data on deleted user accounts; company defends removal efforts after PI claims he found sex offenders on site

In fact, he asserted that MySpace has taken the lead among social networking sites in the effort to improve online protections against sexual predators. "MySpace is the only company in the industry using state-of-the-art technology specifically designed to help MySpace and law enforcement [agencies] aggressively identify and remove registered sex offenders from our site," Nigam said in his statement. He was referring to a tool, jointly developed with Sentinel Tech Holding under a deal signed in 2006, that enables MySpace to conduct real-time searches of a national sex-offender database to identify RSOs trying to register on its site.

Nigam also pointed to the lawsuit that MySpace has filed against Blue China Group in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The complaint alleges that Blue China Group "repeatedly phished and spammed millions of MySpace users," Nigam said. "Unfortunately, while that lawsuit continues, BCG has apparently decided to raise this unrelated issue without providing any data to support its assertions."

Kurtz, the lawyer who is representing Blue China Group, said yesterday that MySpace's attorneys have asked him to hand over Rambam's purported findings. He added that while he has no problem with doing so, he first wants to get some assurances from MySpace. "We're willing to give the information to them on certain terms and conditions," Kurtz said.

The biggest of the conditions is that MySpace promise to maintain records of accounts found to have been set up by sex offenders, as well as data on any interactions that the RSOs might have had with other users, for potential investigatory uses by law enforcement agencies. "My understanding is that when they find RSOs on their site, they just delete the entire profile," Kurtz said.

He also claimed that most of the terms of a proposed settlement deal between MySpace and Blue China Group are already in place. "We just have to iron out a few things," Kurtz said. "No one is using this [information] as leverage for the settlement."

Asked why, in that case, the search for sex offenders on the MySpace site was initiated in the first place, Kurtz said Blue China Group hadn't given Rambam "any particular direction that I can discuss" for his investigative work. "The RSO search is not within the particulars of this lawsuit," Kurtz said. "It was just something that became apparent to Steve."

Blumenthal's subpoena and Rambam's claims follow the release earlier this month of a report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force that painted a surprisingly benign picture of the online threats faced by children. The 279-page report , titled "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies," said the biggest dangers that teenagers and younger children face on the Internet are cyberbullying and online harassment by their peers, not advances by sexual predators. The task force also said its review of academic and industry research showed social networking sites to be less dangerous to children than generally perceived.

The task force created last February as part of the agreement between MySpace and the National Association of Attorneys General. It was directed by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet Society and included representatives from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other companies. Several child-safety and public policy advocacy groups also were represented on the task force.

John Morris, general counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank that helped produce the report, said this week that claims of registered sex offenders having pages on MySpace's Web site shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. But, he added, he fully expects that sex offenders could be found "on a lot of different sites." And Morris credits MySpace for already doing a lot to try to keep RSOs off of its site.

Can MySpace or any company that runs a social network be expected to keep its site entirely clear of sex offenders? "The answer is no," given the sheer number of users and the fact that not all of them use their real identities when registering on a social network, Morris said.

"Certainly, I know that all of the leading sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, are concerned about child safety and have very extensive teams of people focused on how to make the sites safe for all [users]," he said. Forcing changes in the way they operate in ill-conceived efforts to make them safer will only drive children to other, less reliable sites, Morris predicted.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

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