WHEN NEWS CORP. acquired MySpace.com for $580 million in 2005, it picked up a fast-growing business with enormous potential for selling advertisements -- and drawing costly lawsuits. One of the latter landed last November, when Universal Music Group accused MySpace of being “a vast virtual warehouse for pirated copies of music videos and songs.” This week, the families of five 14- and 15-year-old girls who were allegedly sexually assaulted by men they met on MySpace sued News Corp. for negligence and fraud.
These cases highlight the legal challenges facing any company building a business around its users’ personal expressions. MySpace and other social networking sites have to take some steps to deter users from violating the law, but just how far they need to go is still being debated in the courts, Congress and state legislatures.
Meanwhile, technologies are being developed to combat piracy, guard privacy and protect minors against wolves in sheep’s clothing. MySpace has implemented some of these measures; for instance, it’s developing a database of convicted sex offenders and their identifying features that it hopes will help identify and block sexual predators on the site. And it has urged lawmakers to require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, providing another means to identify and block them, or to jail those who are caught using an unregistered e-mail address to sign on to MySpace.
Critics say that’s not enough. Some want the company to ban anyone younger than 16 from the site, and others want to outlaw social networking sites from computers in schools and public libraries. Both measures are overreactions. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 51% of boys and 58% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have created profiles on social networking sites, with MySpace being far and away the most popular. Significantly, the study also found that teenagers use these sites primarily to catch up and make plans with their friends, not strangers. So the sites’ benefits for teenagers appear to outweigh the risks.
Alternatively, some critics want MySpace to do more to verify the age of its users in an effort to deter predators who pose as teenagers in order to meet school-aged victims. That’s easier said than done, particularly for users who are too young to drive. In fact, the vulnerabilities inherent in every protective measure only amplify the risk of relying on technology to safeguard children online. While MySpace can and should develop more tools to help parents monitor what their children do, the people best positioned to protect kids on the site are the kids themselves. Even an attentive parent armed with the latest monitoring technology can’t stop a resourceful 15-year-old determined to venture into the wild.