Online Safety, Updated

Online Safety, Updated
SparkAction (at press time, Connect for Kids)
Cecilia Garcia
April 17, 2006

Kids today are navigating territories that previous generations never imagined. This cyber arena offers new ways to communicate with friends and meet new people, while posing new dangers for kids and young people. Parents are faced with a growing number of news reports about adults posting fake online profiles to meet and exploit young people. Just how safe are places like MySpace, FaceBook, Zanga and others? The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says that there are some 200 social networking sites but criminal incidents so far have been rare. But there is cause for concern.

In testimony on April 6, 2006 before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, FBI acting executive director Chris Swecker said, "We've come a long way from the early electronic bulletin boards that pre-dated the Internet. Today an estimated 21 million teenagers use the Internet, with 51 percent online daily. As children use computers more and more, online child predators take advantage of emerging technologies to facilitate their unimaginable criminal activities."

MySpace is the best known of the social networking sites and the largest with 69 million members. Last week its parent company, News Corporation, announced plans to address Internet safety concerns. These actually build upon efforts MySpace has been engaged in for some time. Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, says MySpace has been working with her organization to provide a safe online environment for kids. "WiredSafety has been the watchdog inside MySpace for a long time," Aftab said. "MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe has been very responsive, immediately implemented our suggestions and posted our safety tips." Aftab said she thinks that the recent bad press moved News Corp to take a higher profile in its online safety efforts.

Building Public Awareness and Confidence

The first of these latest safety efforts was the launch on April 10th of a public service campaign in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Advertising Council. "Don't Believe the Type" alerts teens to know the dangers and what situations to avoid, so they can surf more safely. The campaign is running banner ads on MySpace and News Corporation will run the ads on its cable channels.

In a press statement, NCMEC president and CEO Ernie Allen said, "We know the Internet holds tremendous potential for our nation's youth. We are pleased to be partnering with News Corp and MySpace to extend the reach of our ad campaign so we can educate additional parents, guardians, and teens about how to prevent online victimization so our children may have safer experiences online."

Then, on April 11th, MySpace announced the appointment of Hermanshu Nigam as chief security officer. Nigam currently serves as the director of consumer security outreach and child safe computing at Microsoft. Starting May 1st, he will oversee all safety, education, privacy and law enforcement programs for MySpace. Nigam has more than 15 years experience in online safety; he served as a federal prosecutor against Internet child exploitation for the U.S. Department of Justice. Nigam also advised a congressional commission on online child safety issues.

Aftab says these are good moves for MySpace and demonstrate a willingness to take a proactive approach on Internet safety. When asked if we have the laws needed to protect children from online predators, Aftab replied, "We have all the laws we need. The problem is with law enforcement." She said, "What we need is better training and technology for police officers. Street cops don't have the experience to deal with the Internet. And we need better cooperation between law enforcement and the Internet industry."

Moving Toward Best Practices

WiredSafety is working to encourage providers of social networking sites to collaborate on online safety issues. "Right now, they're operating in a vacuum," Aftab said. To facilitate this collaboration, WiredSafety is convening a June 2006 summit of social networking sites, major Internet service providers and others. The first part of the summit will be designed for companies like MySpace, FaceBook,Zanga, Tagged, and others to talk with each others as peers about online safety issues.

Aftab hopes the summit will provide the groundwork for the creation of online safety standards and best practices. "Maybe they'll end up wanting a WiredSafety —seal of approval— or maybe they'll set up a trade association," she said. "Whatever happens, it will be a voluntary and self-regulating process for those members of the social networking space who are listening to our concerns."

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