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April 2006

Is “MySpace.com” A Safe Place For Children?

I had a disturbing conversation this week with several teenaged and pre-teen children regarding “MySpace.com,” an online social networking place for teens and young adults. The site is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Site users create personal profiles that can include photos and personal information such as likes and dislikes, where the person goes to school, and cell phone numbers. Press reports say the site has more than 50 million members.

My concern arose when the teenagers and pre-teens expressed little or no concern about the privacy of the information they were posting. They viewed the site as a great way to talk to current friends and to find new friends. They were certainly unaware—and frankly did not care—that according to company policy, much of what gets posted to MySpace.com becomes the company’s property and can be sold to other companies and advertisers. They also had not thought about criminals reading their personal information.

Are my privacy concerns overblown? The Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection has received no complaints against the site regarding the use of information for advertising purposes. However, more disturbing are the potential uses of the site for criminal purposes. In February, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced he is investigating whether criminal charges can be brought against NewsCorp because up to seven teenage girls may have been sexually assaulted by adult men they met through MySpace.com.

“I am shocked and dismayed that the operators of MySpace.com fail to shield minors from pornographic images and that the web site may have been used by sexual predators targeting minors,” said Blumenthal. “As a parent, I find it appalling and abhorrent that a web site would so poorly police its pages. This site is a parent’s worst nightmare.”

The U.S. attorney in Connecticut has also brought charges against two men who used MySpace.com to set up sexual encounters with underage teenage girls.

NewsCorp appears to be at least partially responding to privacy concerns. A company spokesperson stated in news reports that MySpace prohibits children under age 14 from using the site. The company uses software designed to identify minors, flagging profiles with terms likely to be used by children under age 14. The company also restricts access to the profiles of 14- and 15-year-olds, allowing them to be contacted only by users that they add to their buddy lists.

Despite these protections, I urge you to be fully aware of what your children or grandchildren are doing online. The children I spoke to this past weekend innocently think putting personal information online is harmless, but unfortunately the facts are demonstrating otherwise.

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