Under pressure from state attorneys general, the popular social-networking Web site MySpace agreed Monday (May 21) to turn over information on thousands of sex offenders it kicked off its site in early May.
Attorneys general from eight states subpoenaed or threatened legal action against MySpace to get the information, which they plan to use to investigate possible parole violations and to aid in other criminal investigations.
But bigger battles still loom over protecting kids on the Internet. Several of the states' top law enforcement officers want not just MySpace but other social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Xanga, to block adolescents from signing up unless they have a parent's permission. The social-networking sites allow users to build profiles of themselves that display their interests and their relationships to other users.
Also on the attorneys general's to-do list for social-networking sites is screening out adult ads on pages accessed by children, keeping kids from accessing inappropriate content generated by older users and detecting child predators online who aren't already on state sex-offender lists, said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett (R).
Corbett was one of eight attorneys general who sent a letter to MySpace last week asking for the identities of sex offenders whom MySpace had blocked from its site. The attorneys general of Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio also joined the effort. They said some registered sex offenders could be violating terms of their parole, such as requirements to avoid contact with minors or stay off the Internet.
MySpace originally refused the requests, citing a federal privacy law. But it agreed Monday to hand over the information to states that subpoenaed the information or asked for it through other legal channels.
"We have zero tolerance for sexual predators on MySpace and took the initiative to create this first-of-its-kind tool ourselves because nothing previously existed. We look forward to working collaboratively with the attorneys general on all future efforts to make the Internet a safer place for teens," Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said in a statement.
A working group of attorneys general from all 50 states and the District of Columbia began meeting last May to push for ways to keep children from meeting sexual predators on social-networking sites.
Frederiksen, of the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, said discussions with those sites has been slow. "It's been more than a year; we'd hoped for more progress."
Nigam, the MySpace executive, said the company would press state lawmakers to require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, so MySpace can keep them off the site in the first place.
At least six states - Arizona, Kentucky, New York, South Dakota, West Virginia and Virginia - now require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses or other online identities with the state. Twelve other states considered similar legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, the attorneys general in Connecticut and North Carolina have asked their legislatures to require children to get a parent's permission before they can sign up for social-networking sites.
A spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) said getting a parental sign-off was the easiest way to ensure that children who sign up for MySpace and other sites are as old as they say they are. MySpace requires its users to be 14 or older.
Social-networking sites could use technology similar to that used by online gambling sites to check the ages of their customers, said Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley.
Cooper's legislation, which could come for a state Senate vote as early as this week, also would increase the penalties for sex offenders who visit social-networking sites with minors, broaden the definition of child pornography and require computer technicians and photo developers to alert authorities when they encounter child pornography.
"Failing to verify ages means that children are exposed to sexual predators who may be older men lying to seem younger. There is no excuse in technology or cost for refusing age verification. If we can put a man on the moon - or invent the Internet - we can reliably check ages," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) told a legislative panel in March. His measure passed out of committee but still awaits a vote by the full House.
In Pennsylvania, the attorney general hopes parental consent would be rolled out on a broader basis, either by convincing MySpace to go along or by passing a federal law. "This is a national issue. This is not just an issue in Pennsylvania," said Fredriksen, the Corbett spokesman.