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Online safety experts critical of MySpace changes

Associated Press

New security measures for young users of MySpace.com won't be enough to stop online child predators, safety experts warned Wednesday.

Starting next week, MySpace will restrict adult access to the information teenagers post about themselves.

MySpace users who are 18 or over could no longer request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old's friends' list unless they already know either the youth's e-mail address or full name. That means they won't have access to personal information on their profiles.

"They're going to lie about their ages," said Monique Nelson, executive vice president of online safety advocate Web Wise Kids. "There's no way to check age verification. In that respect, I don't think that's going to be very effective."

The changes come on the heels of a $30 million lawsuit filed by the mother of a Texas teenager who claims she was raped by a man she met on the popular online social network.

The family doesn't "want this to happen to any other young users on MySpace," said Carl Barry, the Austin attorney representing the teenager and her mother. "They are hoping that MySpace will institute meaningful security measures.

"Right now they do not have them even though they claim they do."

According to the lawsuit and police reports, 19-year-old Pete Solis initiated communication with the 14-year-old freshman in high school. The two exchanged e-mail and talked by phone for about six weeks before they decided to meet.

On a Friday afternoon, Solis picked the girl up from school and drove her to eat at a Whataburger and to see a movie. Before taking her home, he took her to a nearby parking lot and allegedly raped her in the back seat of his car, according to the police report.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind, claims MySpace is negligent in protecting teenage users despite numerous warnings of the dangers.

The site prohibits kids 13 and under from setting up accounts. But the Austin teenager was 13 when she set up her profile last year. MySpace has no mechanism for verifying that users submit their true age when registering.

Under the changes announced Wednesday, any user will still be able to get a partial profile of younger users by searching for other details, such as display name. The difference is that currently, adults can then request to be added to a youth's list to view the full profile; that option will disappear for adults registered as 18 and over.

It's an effort to curb predators' access to information on profiles, which they can use to gain the trust of young users.

Those under 18 will still be able to make contact. Without age verification, adults can sign up as teens and request to join a 14-year-old's list of friends, which would enable the full profiles.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called the changes "baby steps, when giant strides are needed.

"These steps are inadequate because they lack any age verification and leave the minimum age too low," he said. "They fail to raise the age threshold to 16 and take steps to verify age – as I and other attorneys general have repeatedly urged. They are a mirage of protection."

Security director Hemanshu Nigam said MySpace is committed to increasing online safety, particularly among 14 and 15 year olds.

"MySpace remains dedicated to a multi-pronged approach that also involves education and collaboration with law enforcement, teachers, parents and members," he said in a written statement.

At least one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 have received unwanted sexual solicitations online, according to a 2001 study.

"Sexual predators are a lot more common than anyone had thought," said Parry Aftab, a cyberspace lawyer and executive director of wiredsafety.org.

"Far more often than people realize, kids are open to it – that's why it's so scary."

While that number has likely increased with the popularity of sites like MySpace, watchdogs like Aftab say parents don't know how to keep kids safe from the dangers of the Internet.

"This is a wake up call for parents, because they can't just sit back and let the computer be their child's baby sitter," Nelson said. "It's the same thing as just taking a child and dumping them in the middle of the mall when they're very, very young and saying 'Bye bye now, I'll see you later'."

Safety advocates applaud another change, which allows all users the option to make only partial profiles available to those not already on their friends list.

All users also will get an option to prevent contact from people outside their age group.

It's an option parents should mandate their children take, Nelson said.

"There's not enough parents that really understand and get it," she said. "It's beginning to because of stories like this. ... But there's still a lot of denial."

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