MySpace Child Protections Have Fatal Flaw - InformationWeek

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1/15/2008
12:15 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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MySpace Child Protections Have Fatal Flaw

Kudos to MySpace for making an honest attempt to police itself and protect its underage users. There's just one problem -- the plan has a hole you could drive a virtual truck through.

Kudos to MySpace for making an honest attempt to police itself and protect its underage users. There's just one problem -- the plan has a hole you could drive a virtual truck through.Under the deal, which MySpace has made with 49 states and the District of Columbia (they don't say which state opted out), the kiddie online meeting place will make the profiles of all 14- and 15-year-olds private. It also will default the profiles of 16- and 17-year olds to private. (The difference between the two age groups is that the younger youngsters won't be able to un-private their profiles.)

MySpace also is doing a whole bunch of other admirable things, including keeping the younger kids from being contacted by adults they don't know and making sure there are no registered sex offenders on the site.

I could natter on about the agreement, and about MySpace's praiseworthy commitment to protecting its youthful users, all of which is laid out in the press release in greater detail. (I should note, though, that many news stories about the agreement point out that MySpace has been hammered by a bunch of states for some time for its failure to implement aggressive protections, particularly as regards blocking sex offenders.)

But I won't belabor the point, because that's not my point. What I really want to point out is the humongous elephant in the room, which all the kids who use MySpace (and, unfortunately, the predators, too) already have figured out. Indeed, they knew about it before this rather toothless deal was announced. It's this:

  • Kids already widely lie about their ages when they sign up on MySpace. Believe me, as the father of a teenager who's since graduated to Facebook, I am well aware of this. If you have kids, you should be, too. There's nothing to stop a 14-, 15-, 16- or 17-year old from signing up with a profile that says they're 18.

  • Presumably the sex offenders also lie (they're criminals already, right?) and don't register under the felonious names which'd get them booted off the site.
  • There's another problem I just thought of, which sort of makes the first leg of MySpace's attempted protections self-defeating. Younger kids all lie and sign up as 18-year-olds precisely because of the restrictions on youthful users. Perhaps it'd have been better if MySpace had sandboxed 14- and 15-year-olds. That is, encourage them to sign up honestly, and then work harder to protect their profiles.

    I realize that I'm thinking on the fly here, which points up the real problem. Absent some kind of RealID sign-up system for MySpace, where you have to give them your Social Security number (raising the specter of identity theft) and they come to your house and verify you are who you say you are, there's no real way to vet the user base or keep out the bad guys.

    That's why I suspect MySpace and its ilk will continue to be very enticing, yet quite dangerous.

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