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

Just two weeks after a task force whose formation was spearheaded by MySpace delivered a report saying that social networking sites were safer from sexual predators than many people had assumed, MySpace finds itself dealing with a new inquiry related to registered sex offenders by Connecticut's attorney general.

In addition, a private investigator doing work for a Hong Kong-based company involved in a legal dispute with MySpace is claiming that potentially thousands of pages on the social networking site were set up by sex offenders, based on a data-matching search he conducted. MySpace, which has yet to be given the purported findings, noted that the claims were made on behalf of a company it has sued, although the Hong Kong firm's lawyer insisted that he isn't trying to use the information as leverage in settlement talks with MySpace.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal served the subpoena on MySpace last Friday, asking the company to turn over all the information it has on individuals whose member pages and friends lists were removed from the social network after they were identified as registered sex offenders, or RSOs. The apparent reason for the request is to evaluate whether such information could point investigators toward contacts that known sex offenders might have had with other MySpace users, especially minors, before their accounts were deleted.

A spokesman for Blumenthal's office confirmed yesterday that the subpoena had been issued but declined to disclose any further details about the inquiry.

It isn't unusual for social networking sites to be asked for information about sex offenders from law enforcement officials looking into online safety issues. For instance, MySpace itself was subpoenaed in May 2007 by Blumenthal and other attorneys general who wanted the company to turn over the names of sex offenders using its site; two months later, the company said it had identified 29,000 Registered Sex Offenders (RSOs) among its users.

Similarly, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed Facebook in September 2007, seeking documents related to complaints that the company had received about the solicitation of underage users and the posting of inappropriate content on its Web site. First MySpace and then Facebook signed deals with a group of state AGs last year promising to improve online safety protections for children on their sites.

Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, yesterday acknowledged receipt of Blumenthal's subpoena and said the company would comply and provide the Connecticut attorney general with the information he's seeking, as it has done in response to previous requests from state officials.

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"As part of our ongoing partnership with law enforcement and state attorneys general, we continue to provide information on these removed offenders for their investigations," Nigam said in a statement sent via e-mail. He added that MySpace officials "encourage others in the industry to follow our lead in providing children with the same protections" that the company has implemented on its Web site.

Blumenthal's subpoena coincides with the publicising of research done on the MySpace site by Steven Rambam, senior director of Pallorium. Rambam was hired to do investigative work for a company called Blue China Group that is being sued by MySpace for allegedly spamming and phishing the social networking site's users. Rambam said that while doing the work, he discovered numerous MySpace pages that were set up under the names of registered sex offenders.

Pallorium maintains a database of more than 600,000 sex offenders culled from state registries around the country. Rambam said he took a random sample of 40,000 names from that database and then searched more than 2 million MySpace member pages for matches. An initial search using first and last names, approximate age and city and state of residence as keywords yielded over 12,400 matches, Rambam claimed. Each match was then manually compared with the information in Pallorium's database, including photos of sex offenders.

The search was stopped after 100 exact matches were found, according to Rambam, who said the goal wasn't to find all of the sex offenders on MySpace - just a sample large enough to be used as evidence in court. He contended that he could have found many more matches if he had continued the search. "We have a report of 100 because the client told us to stop at 100," he said.

Rambam added that his search for sex offenders was part of a broader effort to unearth information about MySpace's "corporate culture" for use by Hong Kong-based Blue China Group. "One of the things we were specifically asked to determine was whether MySpace's practices lean towards concealing or condoning improper conduct," he said. "The client believed, and we agreed, that an excellent indicator of MySpace's current corporate culture would be whether or not they were aggressively removing RSOs from their membership rolls."

It is unclear whether there is any connection between Rambam's purported findings and Blumenthal's inquiry. Rambam said his claims have evoked at least preliminary interest from the attorneys general of three states, but he wouldn't name them.

Rambam showed Computerworld several examples of MySpace pages containing names and profile pictures that appeared to match those of registered sex offenders. Such pages could be set up as spoofs by other users who take the information from state registries, but Rambam and others said it isn't all that unusual for sex offenders to use their real names, addresses and photos on sites such as MySpace. They noted that offenders who fail to register under their real names on social networks often face mandatory prison terms if caught.

Nigam said that without being able to examine the pages Rambam claims to have found, it's hard for MySpace to respond to his contentions about sex offenders on the MySpace site. But Nigam added that MySpace has worked hard, both on its own and in conjunction with law enforcement officials, to identify and weed out sex offenders as expeditiously as it can.

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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.