'A Towering Danger to Kids'

Four families from around the country filed separate suits against MySpace and its corporate parent, News Corp., this week alleging negligence, recklessness and fraud, after, they say, their underage daughters were sexually abused by adults they met on the site. Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace, responded in a prepared statement that the site "serves as an industry leader on Internet safety and we take proactive measures to protect our members." Nigam also asserts that Internet safety ultimately is "a shared responsibility." (The company has not yet issued a formal legal response to the suits.)

To try to prevent such episodes, MySpace—which boasts 55 million users and is expected to generate some $500 milllion in revenue this year—recently announced that it will begin offering free monitoring software called Zephyr that will enable parents to see what age their children are claiming to be online, without letting parents read their kids' messages and profiles. Still, a task force of 34 state attorneys general, led by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, wants the social-networking giant to go further. Blumenthal's group has called on MySpace to raise its age limit to 16 (from 14) and to do more to verify its members' ages. News Corp.'s Nigam told The Wall Street Journal that the site has not found a "firm technology that can reliably verify the age of our members under 18." Blumenthal explained to NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker why his coalition is demanding that MySpace do more. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is, as your press release calls it, the "towering danger to kids" presented by MySpace?

Richard Blumenthal: The dangers are exposure to inappropriate content, even pornography; equally important, to sexual predators and other threats to their physical safety. What prompted my interest in MySpace was sexual assault and other criminal activity that indicated that children are vulnerable when they interact with others on the site.

Are you thinking of specific criminal activity?

Yeah, very specific. Just to give you some examples, we had charges involving men luring 12- or 13-year-old girls to parks or motel rooms where they were physically assaulted—not only in Connecticut, but elsewhere in the country. As I reached out to my colleagues, others attorneys general, they saw similar incidents occurring in their states. In fact, local police came to me and asked what we could to about MySpace. That was last spring and summer.

You've described Zephyr as inadequate to address these concerns. How so?

Zephyr is a monitoring system. It enables parents to keep track of what their children are doing with the profiles created that they know exist. It's inadequate because it is not age-verification, which is absolutely necessary, and is easily circumvented by children who may create other profiles on computers at their friends' homes or elsewhere.

If age verification were implanted in a way you were happy with, then responsible adults would be unable to use MySpace anonymously.

That's correct. Age verification is a version of identity verification. It's also important that users have the maturity to make responsible choices. For all the spin and expectations, Zephyr in no way stops predators or protects kids from inappropriate material. Parents can monitor or watch what their kids are doing, but predators can still contact them if they also disguise their age.

Predators can do that on other sites, too.

That's a very good point, and I'm glad you raised it. We have never suggested that MySpace is the only point of danger. We've chosen to engage MySpace because it is by far the largest. It dwarfs all the other social-network sites. These same dangers are found on other sites, as well. Our hope is that MySpace will be a model to others … I must also say that as we talk to police departments, they're not coming to us and saying we had this sexual assault resulting from a contact on Facebook or Xanga. It's all MySpace.

MySpace says that raising the minimum age would encourage kids to lie and that there isn't really a reliable age-verification software out there for kids under 16.

The simplistic response is if we can put a man on the moon … in fact, if we can invent the Internet, we can do effective age verification. There's no real cost to verifying a parent or guardian providing consent or vouching for their children. Basically its saying to someone, "OK, you say you're such-and-such age under 18, have your parents vouch for you," and then verify the parents through their licenses or credit cards or whatever. The other point is that raising the age level also will tend to minimize the difficulty of age verification for all of the obvious reasons. So the two really are complimentary.

Won't it make kids even easier prey if parents tell MySpace, "My child is 15, this is his name, here's where we live"?

It's already out there. MySpace already asks users creating a profile to provide name, address, date of birth and zip code. We're not asking for one bit of additional personal information. That's the reason my own personal preference is for parental consent over Social Security numbers. [MySpace's] own terms of service specifically prohibit lying about age. We're only asking them to enforce their own terms of service by checking the information that's entered. We've been focusing on at least in part on 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year olds. But this age verification is very important for the predators. If you ask some guy in his late 30s posing as a 16-year-old to have parent verify his age he's likely to disappear from the Web site. No system is going to be foolproof.

Do you concern yourself at all with the potential impact this will have on MySpace, possibly alienating customers?

Never have they suggested a financial motive would be the reason for not doing it. Of course, there would be no direct financial impact even if they lost 10 percent of their users because their business model is separate and distinct from the number of users. Only 20 percent of their users are reported to be under 18. We're talking about a very narrow, relatively small segment of their profile population. Their revenues are dependent on their advertising. At some point their advertisers will be deterred by incidents of criminal assault or illegality connected to the Web site. They're making a very valiant effort, most recently with Zephyr, to depict themselves as responsible. At some point the spin won't carry the day. I would just suggest that they can't be a prisoner of the culture of the Web site, which is to be freewheeling and edgy and cool and hip—there are other words that are probably more current in the vocabulary [that I don't know] even though I'm a father of four teenagers. These kids feel they are in their own world, but it's one of the most public forums that there is.

Are your kids on MySpace?


Are you sure?

[Laughs.] Not so far as I know. I've asked my two oldest who are 20 and 17. They're not really interested in MySpace, or at least so they tell me.

Certainly some of this responsibility lies at the feet of parents, too. Parents have to teach their kids how to use the Internet responsibly just as they have to teach them how to cross the street responsibly.

I do community forums with state police and local police. We go around to schools; we talk to parents. The first thing I say is, "Parents will always be and must be the first line of defense and the last line of defense." Nothing that MySpace can do—nothing that the attorney general can do—will in any way mitigate or minimize your responsibility as a parent. MySpace can help parents and they have an obligation to help parents. The reality is that a lot of parents can't use the Internet as well as their kids. We tell them to always put the computer in the family room, not in the kids' room. We have one computer in the house, and it's in the family room. None of our children has a computer in any private space. But my kids are home without parents being there, and they go to friends' houses. There's no magic bullet here, there's no panacea.

Are you considering legal action against MySpace?

If MySpace continues to resist our very responsible requests, we'll have to consider all of our options, including legal action.