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Bill Seeks to Block Access to MySpace in Schools

Times Staff Writer

Some in Congress want to make sure there’s no space for MySpace at public schools and libraries.

Concerned about reports of pedophiles trolling wildly popular “social networking” websites for teenage victims, Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) has introduced a bill to prohibit anyone under 18 from accessing them on school or library computers.

“The social networking sites have become, in a sense, a happy hunting ground for child predators,” said Fitzpatrick, a father of six children, including three teen girls. His legislation, called the Deleting Online Predators Act, “is essentially a bill to protect children from the Internet.”

It also would ban access to chat rooms and could block a variety of online forums. In addition, the bill would require the Federal Trade Commission to create a special website for parents and teachers warning of the potential dangers of social networking sites. Those sites, among the fastest-growing on the Internet, allow people to create their own Web pages and share photos and messages.

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The bill was introduced this week as part of a legislative agenda aimed at suburban voters. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) supports it, and the issue could become election-year fodder amid reports of scattered arrests across the country of sexual predators who used MySpace.com to lure children to meetings in parks or motels.

Those reports, and more frequent complaints of objectionable language and photos, have spurred many schools nationwide, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, to block access to MySpace from their computers. Some libraries also block social networking sites as part of standard filtering for objectionable material.

But the legislation raises questions about how much the federal government should regulate the Internet and about the value of social networking sites in an era in which many teens have few real places to gather.

“There’s so much fear, even in suburban regions, where teenagers aren’t allowed to just go and hang out,” said Danah Boyd, a UC Berkeley graduate student who is studying social networking sites.

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Teens -- particularly those from poor families or rural areas -- need school and library computers to gain access to social networking sites, she said.

“Of course there are bad situations. But ... I can tell you a number of kids who have been molested in school by teachers,” Boyd said. “Does that mean we don’t send kids to school?”

The number of incidents on MySpace is “ridiculously small” considering the site’s nearly 80 million registered users, she said.

Santa Monica-based MySpace.com, which was acquired by News Corp., announced the hiring of a former federal prosecutor last month to patrol the site for unsavory characters. News Corp. also has been running public service announcements on its website and TV channels warning children to be careful of strangers online.

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Rick Lane, vice president for government affairs at News Corp., said Thursday that MySpace had been working on security and safety issues with law enforcement, education and child-safety organizations and also had met with several state and federal legislators to try to “address their concerns.”

MySpace is the most popular of a slew of social networking websites, including Blogger and Facebook. The top 10 such sites collectively grew 47% over the last year, with about 68.8 million unique visitors in April, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. Visits to MySpace have more than tripled in the last year, making it the Internet’s eighth-most-visited site.

But that popularity has invited some shady visitors. Just in the last month, a Connecticut man was charged with using MySpace to lure a 13-year-old girl to a hotel room. And four men on Long Island, N.Y., were arrested for using the site to solicit sex with what they thought was a 13-year-old girl. It turned out to be a police detective.

In response to letters from some members of Congress, the FTC issued a consumer alert Tuesday about social networking sites with safety tips for parents and kids.

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But Fitzpatrick wants more.

“The Internet is a great resource for children. It’s a wonderful thing when used well ... but we need to recognize there’s a real risk in the interactive social networking sites,” he said. “It’s a problem for families. It’s a problem for all of us.”


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