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Hip Youth Website Gets Grown Up About Safety

MySpace hires a former U.S. prosecutor to keep predators away from its many young members.

April 11, 2006|Chris Gaither and Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writers

Fighting its reputation as an unsavory online hangout, "social networking" site has hired a former federal prosecutor to patrol the service and launched ads warning kids about Internet predators.

Internet safety expert and former Justice Department porn buster Hemanshu Nigam will become MySpace's first chief security officer and oversee initiatives to protect the Santa Monica company's 68 million members. Nigam's appointment, effective May 1, is expected to be announced today.

Although wildly popular, MySpace has drawn the wrath of parents concerned that child molesters prowl the personal pages of young members. More common, though, are complaints about coarse language and racy photographs.

Such criticism has become a headache for parent firm News Corp., which acquired MySpace in July as part of its $580-million purchase of Intermix Media Inc. Schools in Orange, Monterey and Los Angeles counties have banned access to the site from school computers, and countless parents have yanked their children's memberships.

To combat MySpace's image as a lawless online playground, News Corp. on Monday began running public-service announcements by the Advertising Council -- the nonprofit group behind "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" and other campaigns -- on MySpace, News Corp.'s other websites and its television channels, including Fox Broadcasting, FX and Fox Sports Net.

The spots caution children to "don't believe the type" -- in other words, be skeptical when strangers approach online.

"There are certain issues on MySpace that are endemic to the Internet that are endemic to society as a whole," said MySpace Chief Executive Chris DeWolfe. "There are a couple of basic safety rules you can learn and have a quite safe Internet experience."

MySpace offers its members, who primarily are youngsters, the ability to create detailed profile pages featuring music, photos and other attractions to show the online world.

The opportunity to effortlessly connect with friends and strangers has made MySpace one of the fastest-growing sites on the Internet, with more page views -- a gauge of audience size -- than any other company but Yahoo Inc. Users can write blogs, give shout-outs to their friends and invite others to become their online buddies.

But as part of a major media company, MySpace must walk a fine line: clean up the site to protect members and attract advertisers without making it so tame that fans leave for hipper pastures. In fact, MySpace was the beneficiary of various failures on the part of once-cool Friendster Inc., the former most popular social-networking site.

"Our whole approach to MySpace hasn't changed a bit," DeWolfe said. "Having a safe site and having a cool site that lots of people are into aren't mutually exclusive ideas."

MySpace executives decided to consolidate the oversight of security in one high-profile position.

They said they had been implementing stricter safety measures, including deleting profiles of users younger than 14, requiring users younger than 18 to read safety tips before registering and offering free Web filtering software to parents.

Child-safety advocates have long struggled to keep up with the openness of the Internet. Chat rooms, message boards and instant messaging make it easier to find like-minded people online. But these technologies have also made it easier for predators to find children.

AOL, MySpace and other services have tried to address the problem, experimenting with such ideas as placing adult monitors in chat rooms for kids.

"The bottom line really remains the same," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Rocky Costa, project director of the Southern California High Tech Task Force. "That is to ensure that kids are aware that, much like the beach full of rocky terrain, it's a dangerous environment when certain rules are not followed."

Child-safety advocates praised MySpace's choice of the 41-year-old Nigam. He will join the company from Microsoft Corp., where he directs consumer security outreach and child-safe computing. He has prosecuted child pornography, predator and trafficking cases for the Justice Department and advised federal officials on cyber-stalking.

"He has a long history in attacking child sexual exploitation crimes," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which worked on the ad campaign.

"The fact that they're bringing him in sends a loud, clear message that they take this very seriously and are doing the things necessary to ensure that this is a resource that will be used safely and responsibly."

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