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Building a safer MySpace

News Corp.'s online social network has come a long way in setting safeguards to protect minors, but the work is only starting.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Weeks into his tenure as safety czar of social network MySpace, Hemanshu Nigam already had his hands full. MySpace had been slapped with a $30 million lawsuit concerning a 14-year-old Texas girl who said she was assaulted by a predator she met on MySpace. Lawmakers were lobbying to have social networks banned from schools and libraries.

Now, weeks before Nigam's first anniversary as MySpace chief security officer, the pressure is even greater. News Corp.'s rapidly growing social network now faces four new lawsuits from the same Texas law firm, Barry & Loewy, that sued MySpace last June.

Nigam's efforts to bolster security at the social network are well under way. On Jan. 23, he announced a partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to use MySpace to disseminate word of child abductions through the Amber Alert system, named after a girl who was abducted and killed in 1996. He also said the site will implement an e-mail verification system and an "over/under" privacy tool that prevents contact in either direction between users above the age of 18 with younger users.

"We're trying to identify what the challenges are and provide solutions that actually make a difference and not just get headlines," Nigam says. "We always work with a sense of urgency."

Those measures follow other steps designed to keep kids safe on MySpace. Earlier this month, the site introduced a kind of software that reveals the age, user name, and hometown of teens using the network, regardless of where they log in, so that parents can identify their kids and verify the ages of other users.

Last June, the site offered full privacy settings, deleted more than 250,000 profiles of underage users, and set the minimum age to 14. In December, MySpace announced a joint venture with Sentinel Tech Holding Company, the leading online identity and background verification company, that would let MySpace block convicted sex offenders.

Nigam's measures reflect the "perfect storm of parental concern" exacerbated by negative media attention and midterm elections that gave some politicians a platform to play on those concerns, says Anne Collier, co-author of MySpace Unraveled, a book billed as a parent's guide to teen social networking.

No question, Nigam and other executives have had a busy year, but has the flurry of activity made MySpace any safer? Adam Loewy, the attorney handling the five lawsuits filed against MySpace, answers with a resounding no.

"If you own a [skating] rink that allows both adults and kids, the skating rink is held liable for any inappropriate interaction between the kid and the adult," Loewy says. "MySpace knew these things were occurring, they just chose not to do anything about it. The difference is that the actual crime occurred off the Internet, but we believe that liability extends to the Internet."

Some child-safety advocates say MySpace is making the right moves.

"It's so difficult for a company on the cutting edge to deal with the business issues and challenges like child safety when it's going off like a rocket," says Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, a group that's dedicated to making the Internet safer for kids.

Rice Hughes formerly was outspoken in her opposition to MySpace but now works with the company on safety issues. "The different technology and child-safety software and policies that they've put into MySpace have made it safer. It has learned how to protect kids from their own naiveté."

But Nigam's efforts are far from over — and MySpace is going to continue bearing the brunt of criticism over child safety for years to come, experts say.

"Because of its size, MySpace is going to become this societal guinea pig where this kind of behavior is exposed and necessary changes are made," says Collier. "The law hasn't caught up with the social Web."