MySpace recently announced the identification and removal of the profiles of 90,000 sex offenders from the social networking website. That number was more than twice MySpace’s original estimation of 40,000 offenders.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal have led the fight to get social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to do more to protect children and teenagers. “These sites were created for young people to communicate with each other,” AG Cooper said. “Predators are going to troll in these areas where they know children are going to be.” Cooper argues that this fact results in an obligation for these sites to take aggressive measures to protect young users.

A recent study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that 54% of people on MySpace claiming to be teens frequently referenced high-risk behavior, such as drug use, sex, and violence, in their posts.

The fact is: Just about anyone can create an online profile and get access to these popular social networking websites. And their online identities can reflect just about anything they want. A 42-year-old Asian man living in Long Beach, California, can present himself as a blond 15-year-old girl from New Jersey who loves partying with friends and listening to Christina Aguilera. You simply don’t know who your children are talking to.

MySpace commissioned background verification firm Sentinel Safe Tech Holdings Corp. (Sentinel SAFE) to produce a national database of sexual predators. John Cardillo, former NYC police officer and current CEO of Sentinel SAFE, warns that Facebook is doubtless a safe haven for sex offenders and will likely attract more predators in the aftermath of MySpace’s removal of so many of them. Facebook, however, is taking its own steps to make its site safer for young users. Last summer, Facebook agreed to a deal with forty-nine attorneys general to implement new safety measures in an effort to protect teens from sexual predators.

When MySpace was founded in 2003, its creators intended it to be “a place for established musicians to network and for unsigned musicians to get noticed.” With over 72 million users currently, MySpace fosters communication amongst people of every conceivable interest and certainly holds the potential for more dubious interactions than those first envisioned as part of a quaint, innocent musicians’ website.

While MySpace and similar websites may have a moral obligation to take measures to protect children and teens that use their sites, there does not seem to be much of a legal obligation to do so. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) “provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an ‘interactive computer service’ who publish information provided by others.” Courts have extended CDA immunity to social networking sites, absolving them of liability for instances of sexual assault against their users. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, dismissing the plaintiff’s claims that MySpace failed “to implement basic safety measures to prevent sexual predators from communicating with minors on MySpace,” explained in 2007 that “[i]f anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace.”

Regardless of whether or not social networking sites have a legal obligation to protect young users, they at least have a public relations incentive to do so. When MySpace agreed to step up its protections, Facebook, not wanting to be seen as indifferent to safety concerns, was quick to follow suit. Moreover, it would be in the best legal interests for social networking sites to be proactive in providing for users’ safety, as a trend of increasing incidents of sexual assault against users could lead to a mounting negative public perception of such sites and hence increased pressure on Congress or regulatory agencies to legally require such sites to protect the safety of their users. As long as these sites are actively working with law enforcement officials to protect children and teens, though, they should be exempted from liability. Parents, not social networking sites, have both the responsibility and the better ability to protect their children from online sexual predators. Plus, with over 700,000 registered sex offenders potentially crawling around in cyberspace, some will inevitably slip through even the best safety measures implemented by social networking sites.

–George Gaskin

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