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Protecting Children Online: How Much Can--And Should--MySpace Do?

Just yesterday, the superintendent of our school district sent an e-mail to all parents detailing how two men attempted to entice a 12-year-old girl -- who was one block from her school -- into their van. In our extraordinarily safe community where parents hover over their children like chickens over new-laid eggs, this was huge news. No one can stop talking about it. An artist rendering of the two men already has been plastered throughout town. Yet very few of the parents I've talked to are awa
Just yesterday, the superintendent of our school district sent an e-mail to all parents detailing how two men attempted to entice a 12-year-old girl -- who was one block from her school -- into their van. In our extraordinarily safe community where parents hover over their children like chickens over new-laid eggs, this was huge news. No one can stop talking about it. An artist rendering of the two men already has been plastered throughout town. Yet very few of the parents I've talked to are aware of the current debate going on about whether MySpace should release the name of registered sex offenders it has found on its popular social networking site.A quick recap: In December 2006 MySpace agreed to identify and purge accounts of registered sex offenders. Not enough, said eight attorneys general this week, who demanded that MySpace turn over those names so they could investigate exactly who those individuals had been communicating with, and whether any crimes had been committed. Thus far, MySpace has refused, stating that state and federal laws protect the privacy of its members.

As it happens, I've spent the last few weeks researching a feature (yet to be published) about online sexual offenders, and have been immersed in a frightening and creepy universe where either 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 children -- depending on which stats you believe -- under the age of 18 have been sexually solicited online. And those are just the reported incidents. As experts in this field point out, sexual exploitation of children is one of the most under-reported crimes due to the victims' shame and fear of being punished.

There's the big question of exactly how much MySpace, or any other social networking site, can actually do. There's nothing to prevent a purged sex offender from simply signing up under another name. Not to mention that the MySpace policy only targets those slimeballs who have actually been convicted -- what about all the other creeps who have never been caught, or for whom the Internet has lowered the barrier to entry for acting on what were previously only fantasies?

What do you think? Should MySpace release the names? Would it do any good if it did? Or -- as many believe -- is the only effective safeguard against online threats the education of parents and children alike? Let us know by responding to the InformationWeek blog.