January 14 2008: 1:23 PM EST
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New effort to protect kids online

MySpace joins with 49 states to step up efforts to keep kids safe from online predators.

By Jessi Hempel, writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- MySpace has long been under fire by parents and politicians alike for exposing children to online sexual predators. Now, the industry's largest teen social networking site is calling on the industry to make kids safer.

After nearly two years of talks, MySpace is joining with attorneys general of 49 states and the District of Columbia to step up safety efforts online. On Monday, the group unveiled a set of four principles that it hopes will serve as industry standards. They address site design, educational tools and law enforcement cooperation. And as part of the principles, MySpace will organize a task force to address age and identity verification.

MySpace, which had 69 million unique users in December, also unveiled a new set of even more stringent safety measures for the site. The site will make private all profiles of those 17 and under, and users age 14 and 15 will not be able to alter the settings. The site will soon allow parents to submit their children's e-mail addresses to a database so that MySpace can keep them from creating profiles. And MySpace is stepping up efforts to make it easier to report inappropriate behavior.

"Over the last two years we have implemented a hundred safety features. It's time for us to go to the next level," said chief security officer Hemanshu "Hemu" Nigam, a former federal prosecutor who spent four years running Microsoft's security technology unit. "We're saying to the rest of the industry, step up."

The move comes in response to a deluge of negative feedback. MySpace has come under fire from parents, teachers, law enforcement agencies and politicians. Dateline NBC ran a popular pedophile-busting series called To Catch a Predator that highlighted teens who had been seduced online. Parent-Teacher Associations have gathered concerned parents in high school cafeterias to discuss banning the site.

Nobody has been more vocal than the United States attorneys general. At Monday's press conference, the AGs reported spikes in the numbers of online sexual predators who have been caught and prosecuted since 2004 when the site launched. In New Jersey alone, the attorney general's office has worked with MySpace to removed 268 sex offenders who had MySpace profiles, according to New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram.

What took so long? Techies and prosecutors have disagreed over whether it's really possible to verify children's identity. Says Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who has actively spoken out about the site for several years, "If we can put a man on the moon, we can do age and identity verification."

The social networking industry disagrees, arguing that most of the users in question don't yet have drivers' licenses, they are listed in few databases, and the technology to make sure they are who they say they are doesn't yet exist. A task force appears to be their compromise. Says Nigam, "There are no databases for under children under 18 years old. The purpose for the task force is to recognize the technology changes at lightning speed. We have to study it and find out what is out there and see if something is possible."

Facebook, another social networking site, supports the efforts. The site has had a reputation for much more stringent privacy settings, but it's not immune from safety concerns. In October, the site came to an agreement with the New York attorney general's office to work toward protecting underage members from sexual predators and inappropriate content. An independent monitor approved by the New York Attorney General's office will oversee Facebook's compliance with the safeguards for two years. Says a company spokesperson, "We are happy to work further with the states to develop and deploy strategies to protect kids online."

Meanwhile, the move should appease more than just parents. Advertisers have a lot riding on the social networking sites' ability to make sure their corporate logos are positioned in a safe environment that supports their brands. Safety, in effect, is good business. To top of page