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A website that encourages young people to post personal information about themselves and has been linked to a series of rapes and other crimes by sexual predators is wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which also owns the Fox News Channel.
Murdoch sealed the deal for MySpace.com and its parent, Intermix Media, for $580 million in July. When the deal was announced, Murdoch said in a statement: “Intermix’s brands, such as MySpace.com, are some of the Web’s hottest properties and resonate with the same audiences that are most attracted to Fox’s news, sports and entertainment offerings.”
California Web entrepreneurs Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe founded MySpace.com two years ago after envisioning Net surfers having personal websites where they could upload photos and sound files easily, and disclose as much personal information as they wanted. At last count, over 55 million people had “space” on the site, including countless teenagers who use their pages to communicate their thoughts on everything from school to music to the opposite sex.
Law enforcement officials, however, believe teens are disclosing way too much information for their own good.
When young people post their cell-phone numbers, names of their schools and sexy photos of themselves (though MySpace says it prohibits pornographic pictures), they endanger themselves, stress authorities, who have investigated so-called “social websites” and linked them to crimes such as rape, molestation and even murder.
In Lafayette, La., last month a 16-year-old girl was attacked by a man who tracked her down at her after-school job. He had read details about her on MySpace.
In September, a 17-year-old freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University was murdered when information on MySpace allegedly led the killer to her.
Investigators looking into the murders of two other teenage girls, one in New Jersey and one in California, are trying to determine if information the two posted on MySpace helped the assailants.
In Middletown, Conn., police suspect that in the past two months, seven girls under 16 have been sexually assaulted by men they met on MySpace, USA Today reported. In most cases, the men who lured the girls said online they were younger than they really were.
The Connecticut attorney general’s office is considering prosecuting MySpace for failing to protect young people – and that threat has gotten MySpace’s attention. The company released a statement saying, “We share [the attorney general’s] concerns about the safety and security of MySpace, and we will be working with him … to make our safety practices and procedures even stronger and more effective.”
Some members of MySpace, which has been described by law enforcement as “a buffet for a predator,” are even younger than 13. The Rutland, Vt., Herald reports one MySpace profile highlights an elementary school student. It shows the 11-year-old provocatively posed on a bed. Her profile listed her age as 19, but she noted elsewhere on her page, “I’m actually 11 years old.”
Another page shows a coquettish 11-and-a-half-year-old girl with hands cupping her breasts, staring into the camera. Friends comment with replies such as, “You’re hot.”
“Kids are not connecting what they’re doing on the computer with real life,” Parry Aftab, an online safety expert who has advised MySpace, told USA Today. “They do not believe they’re accountable.”
So how big is MySpace.com? It has become so popular it boasts two and a half times the traffic of Google. And of those 55 million members, one-quarter are registered as minors. MySpace’s rival site, Friendster, has 24 million members.
“Just about every parent is aware of it and every kid is on it,” website President Tom Anderson told the Boston Herald. “Some kind of reaction (is expected) as MySpace becomes part of the mainstream.”
But oftentimes, parents are clueless about the fact their children have pages on MySpace. One mother told the Vermont paper: “I was shocked when I saw it. [My son’s] girlfriend’s friend wrote some very obscene things about him.”
Besides the crime connection, teens across the nation have been suspended from school for threatening classmates on MySpace. Many schools also have policies against accessing MySpace pages from campus computers.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is one of the organizations urging parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of social websites. The organization says one in five children who use the Internet are solicited sexually.
Murdoch hailed the benefits of MySpace last year when he purchased the company.
Young people “don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important,” Murdoch is quoted by BBC News as saying.
“And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.
“Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle.”
Some critics believe Murdoch’s News Corp could become legally liable for some of the lives destroyed because of MySpace, perhaps coming in the form of a class-action suit.
MySpace released a statement to WorldNetDaily about measures it is taking to enhance the safety of users, especially teenagers.
The company says it prohibits those under 14 from becoming members – though due to the nature of the Internet, it is difficult to enforce such a rule. Also, MySpace says it limits access to pages of members under 16 to only those people they know.
The firm says it is dedicating one-third of its approximately 175-employee workforce to “policing and monitoring our site on a 24 hour, seven day-a-week basis to make sure our age requirements are met, and that inappropriate images are not posted to the site. The accounts of users who violate these policies are closed.”
MySpace says it’s “providing mechanisms so our users can report inappropriate content” to the site.
“Once we are alerted, we take prompt action that ranges from involving law enforcement officials to deleting a user from the system,” the firm states.
“While MySpace continues to develop additional measures to enhance site safety,” the statement says, “it is important to note that MySpace is a modern communication tool like a cell phone, e-mail or instant messenger. MySpace encourages all members to recognize the public nature of the Internet.”
Radio talk-show host Jaz McKay of KNZR noted a pastor in Bakersfield, Calif., recently spent 30 hours online researching MySpace and came away with a binder full of documents and images – some of which were clearly pornographic, he says.
McKay believes authorities need to investigate the site for violations of child pornography laws.
Noting the hundreds of millions the company was sold for, McKay asked on his show yesterday: “With that kind of money, why don’t they hire more people to monitor the site?”
Daniel Weiss of Focus on the Family Action says the bottom-line solution is for parents to come to grips with the dangers of the Net.
Said Weiss: “Parents need to understand that anytime they let their kid go online alone it’s as if they allowed a stranger into their child’s bedroom and the stranger closed the door.”