MySpace Boots Sex Predators

The social-networking behemoth is cooperating with law enforcement officials on the lookout for sex offenders, but will the cost of doing so be steep?

Is MySpace unsafe? Some state law-enforcement officials certainly think so, given a July 25 report that 29,000 registered sex offenders had created profiles on the world's most popular social-networking site.

Perhaps understandably, the revelation attracted avid chatter around the Internet. Bloggers wasted little time in speculating about how such news might affect the News Corp. (NWS)-owned social-networking giant's business, not to mention the quality of life online.

Increased Pressure to Ban Predators

MySpace, home to more than 180 million user profiles, initially resisted pressure by several state attorneys general to reveal the names of sex offenders with profiles on the site. After acquiescing in May, MySpace began sharing information with law enforcement officials and said it had deleted 7,000 such profiles. Now the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has said the number of sex offenders using the site is more than quadruple the number of booted profiles.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has also sought data from MySpace on sex offenders, joined Cooper in expressing outrage over the number of predators using the site, But according to an Associated Press report, MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said the company was satisfied with its efforts.

Some bloggers saw the sex-offender revelation as fuel for fears the Web is little more than a seedy and dangerous place. "The idea that the Internet is filled with sexual predators has received a boost" because of the news, writes Andres Guadamuz, a lecturer in technology law at the University of Edinburgh, at his blog TechnoLlama. That might scare some people, but the possible reactions—such as heightened policing of social-networking sites for high-risk users—could be worse than the problem itself, according to Guadamuz. "Actions like that taken by MySpace indicate that industry is prepared to take action to avoid bad press, which generates a de facto market regulatory response that goes beyond anything required by law," Guadamuz writes.

Protecting Reputations or Users?

As former Wall Street analyst Henry Blodgett notes at his tech business blog, Alley Insider, MySpace is reportedly on track for more than $1 billion in revenue this year. "One billion dollars is real money, perhaps even enough to finally silence those who continue to argue (pray) that advertisers will NEVER risk being associated with, gasp, user-generated content," Blodgett writes.

The ultimate impact on MySpace's bottom line might have more to do with whether law-abiding members perceive the efforts to uncover sex offenders as too aggressive or intrusive. Besides the North Carolina attorney general's parental consent wish, tougher age restrictions have also been suggested. "MySpace does not want to see its younger user base threatened, but also resists such verification measures, likely because they could push current and potential users away from MySpace to competing Web sites," writes David Utter of WebProNews.

At Mashable, a social-networking news site, Kristen Nicole wrote that "the ultimate goal of law enforcement officials…is to implement some sort of parental control or age verification system for the registration process." As her Mashable colleague Peter Cashmore wrote in January when a handful of families sued News Corp., saying their children had been abused by people they met on the site, "If MySpace did require credit card verification or offered parental tracking tools, it would scare off their entire user base." Now that rival Facebook has abandoned its previous focus on college campuses in favor of catering to the general public, that threat is quite real.

MySpace is the biggest player in social networking on the Web, and as long as it remains on top it's likely to attract the most criticism for problems that could affect most similar sites, writes TechCrunch's Nick Gonzalez. "Being one of the largest and highest-profile sites, MySpace continues to draw the bulk of the criticism as they make the tough choices about balancing safety with the openness that helps the site grow," Gonzalez writes.

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