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Thursday, 22 June 2006 06:18

MySpace a can of worms that cannot be closed

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A US$30 million lawsuit launched against MySpace by a 14 year girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 19 year old man she met on the site may not succeed say some legal sources. However, the case does raise some serious issues that sections of the global community of internet users, educators and parents have flagged for some time.

Social networking sites can be the modern day equivalent of the pen pals of yesterday. People with similar interests can get together online and share their experiences and views from the comfort of their own homes. The attraction for young people for whom the web has become second nature is undeniable. Unfortunately, the attraction for the unsavoury dregs of society whose mission it is to prey upon young people is also undeniable.

The problem is that the anonymity afforded to users of social networking sites is often not sufficient protection for the innocent and unwary but at the same time provides cover for the criminal deviant. A child may think he or she is discussing his or her favourite TV program with another child when in fact the person they are talking to is a calculating malevolent adult who is developing a ruse to arrange a physical meeting.

In its defence, MySpace has issued a statement saying that internet safety is a shared responsibility and that users should apply offline lessons in the online world. This is true and it is also true that MySpace has all the necessary disclaimers on its site, which will no doubt help its case in the courtroom. However, MySpace itself has given tacit acknowledgement that, when children are involved, platitudes about shared responsibility and public disclaimers are not enough.

MySpace has said that it will immediately change the rules of membership for adults wishing to contact minors. They would have to demonstrate that they already know any minor that they wish to contact. Also any MySpace members would be able to hide their online profiles from all strangers if they wish. The fact that MySpace is now introducing these changes under the pressure of public scrutiny and in the light of the current law suit is in effect an admission that the membership system it had in place did not provide sufficient protection for the unwary.

Some analysts have postulated that the problem highlighted by the $30 million law suit is not a MySpace issue but an internet issue. This is certainly true. MySpace is by no means the only social networking site. In fact, instant messaging communities and chat groups can also conceivably pose dangers to the unwary.

One of the major problems is that the anarchic nature of the internet makes it too easy to participate yet remain unaccountable. There are no 100 point checks to obtain a web-based email account or download an instant messaging program or sign on to a chat room. There is no fool proof universal age verification system in place to stop children visiting places that they shouldn't. Perhaps there should be enforceable standards developed and imposed on all internet participants. Whether that is workable is another question.

In the final analysis, the responsibility falls upon parents and educators to teach children how to use the internet safely. To that end, perhaps schools and politicians would do better to work with social networking sites like MySpace to make them safer places to visit rather than try to ban them.

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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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