Politicians on Tuesday accused MySpace.com and other social-networking sites of failing to protect minors from sexual predators and other malign influences and said a legislative crackdown may be necessary.
During a hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee, politicians argued over the merits of compelling schools and libraries to cordon off access to social-networking sites, requiring some form of an Internet ID that would prove a person's age, or doing nothing at the moment.
"MySpace.com has been a center of drug activity, of gang activity, and of Internet predators," said Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican. "Isn't it entirely appropriate that the state get involved?"
One bill introduced in May would cordon off access from schools and libraries to commercial Web sites that let users create public "Web pages or profiles" and also offer a discussion board, chat room or e-mail service.
"If we could save one child, then it's worth it--that one child, that innocent child who may fall prey during the school hours because the legislation wasn't enacted," said David Zellis, an assistant district attorney in Bucks County, Penn., who testified at the hearing.
MySpace and other social-networking sites like LiveJournal.com and Facebook have come under increasing pressure from members of Congress hoping to appeal to voters before the November elections. The school and library filtering bill--called the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA--is a centerpiece of a poll-driven Republican effort called the "Suburban Agenda."
DOPA defines a broad category that covers far more than social-networking sites such as Friendster and Google's Orkut.com. It would also sweep in a wide range of interactive Web sites and services that allow "users to create Web pages or profiles," including Blogger.com, AOL and Yahoo's instant-messaging features, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which permits in-game chat. (CNET Networks, publisher of CNET News.com, might also be covered because of its member profile feature.)
Another idea that surfaced on Tuesday was to slap some form of age verification on social-networking sites.
"Putting restrictions on children's access to this, such as age verification, will all be steps in the right direction," said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, who also testified.
Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, suggested that Web sites find "a third-party age verification out there that can do that."
But some Democrats, joined by the American Library Association, said the proposals are flawed.
"If the goal is protecting children and combating child exploitation, why should these requirements apply only to schools receiving e-rate funding--the poorer schools?" said Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who represents part of Silicon Valley, also said that DOPA was "really not the prescription to handle this" problem.
For its part, MySpace--now owned by Rupert Murdock's News Corp.--has taken steps this year to assuage concerns among parents and politicians. It has assigned some 100 employees, about one-third of its workforce, to deal with security and customer care, and hired Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, a former Justice Department prosecutor, as chief security officer.
But MySpace declined to send a representative to Tuesday's hearing, a slight that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton called "unfortunate." Barton added that if Internet sites aren't taking adequate precautions, Congress should enact DOPA, "at the very least."
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.
I have serious misgivings about the government stepping into this fray. When has the US government been known to "get it right?" This is yet another case of the government wanting to step in because American parents aren't really doing their jobs.
I'm not saying Myspace.com shouldn't be more proactive in policing themselves. They certainly should. I just think that much like heavy metal music in the 80s "causing" suicide, this is another case where parents who are too lazy, preoccuppied, or more concerned with being a friend than a parent is leading to their kids finding mischief. I'm not saying all parents fit that mold, they don't. But sadly I think enough parents are too quick to ask the government to come in and do their job for them and too lazy to take the time to do the job themselves.
This is not an issue for the Feds, although I do think the Department of Education should take SOME measures to encourage schools to block some of these social networking sites. Not necessarily because of sexual predators or gang warfare (how violent can "digital" gang warfare be?-- I'm genuinely curious here)-- although those certainly are factors. But because school is an environment for learning. Social networking websites encourage a lack of face-to-face social interaction. There's a time and place for sites like Myspace (heck, I have an account and I'm sure some of the rest of you do too). But I really believe schools should be encouraging students to interact with one another face to face and developing stronger social skills as opposed to IMing their friends sitting at the desks next to them.