The MySpace saga that we’ve been covering for the last six months continues. In October, an intrepid editor at Wired exposed a large number of potential sex offenders at the site. MySpace acknowledged the problem and contracted a firm to build a list of sex offenders from all of the available U.S. registries, so that it could sweep the site for them and remove offenders’ profiles. However, until recently, MySpace was not sharing the information it collected with the states, citing fears about federal privacy protection laws. Now, however, the Washington Post reports that MySpace has been subpoenaed by several states, and it is turning over its records. Although this is a positive development, it does not guarantee the safety of anyone online.
Attorneys general have a strong interest in what sex offenders do online. As explained in the Seattle Times, they worry that “[m]any of these sex offenders may have violated their parole or probation by contacting or soliciting children on MySpace.” This is a legitimate fear; Wired turned up a few offenders doing precisely what the attorneys general fear. And any predator who is caught is one who cannot hurt another child. According to the Times, MySpace has removed 7,000 profiles of the 180 million total profiles on its system on the basis of its scanning.
Unfortunately, as discussed in this space before, MySpace’s lists do not particularly guarantee the safety of children. The lists may help identify predators who use their own names. But the lists do little to capture the true identities of predators who are pretending to be someone else, such as a child or a trustable adult. Nor does scanning or restricting online communication tools help most of the children who are molested; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics [PDF], only 10 percent of child victimizers who commit rape and sexual assault are strangers to the children they victimize. Nearly half of the victims are assaulted by members of their own families. Although protecting any child from sexual predators is important, spending resources scanning the Internet for predators can have only limited effect.
Although I applaud MySpace and the attorneys general for their good intentions and their technical and legal feats, I still believe firmly that a more general approach of prevention education makes more sense. Teaching children the basics of safe Internet use, combined with parents who take the time to talk with their kids about what they are doing online, can help prevent or stop a conversation with a predator. Such an approach can also provide the foundation for a crime prevention education that can last a lifetime.
Hat tip to slashdot.