In the latest round of Whac-A-Mole that is regulation of the Internet, 49 state attorneys general and MySpace this week agreed on a set of protocols that would ostensibly make the online community a safer place.
Under the pact, MySpace will implement several measures that will make it somewhat more difficult for strangers to reach children using the online community, including allowing parents to submit their children's e-mail addresses to MySpace to prevent their children from setting up a Web page, changing the default setting from public to private for 16- and 17-year-old users and strengthening software to identify underage users.
When it comes to protecting children online, these steps will likely have the practical impact equivalent to taking your shoes off as you pass through airport security. Nettlesome and attention-grabbing, but probably ineffective at restraining the targeted population.
Adolescents already use e-mail addresses that their parents don't know about. They already misrepresent their age online, because they know that minors are barred from certain types of content. Finally, MySpace has little incentive to develop tools that might dampen traffic on the site, knowing that if adolescents begin to chafe under the restrictions they'll flee to other sites.
Singling out MySpace also creates an ad hoc situation that will have little impact on the next online site-of-the-moment. Furthermore, patchwork solutions mean that parents can't count on one set of privacy restrictions applying to all websites, increasing the complexity of an already complex world. Ad hoc solutions also fail to give guidance to future online services that may arise. And if the past 15 years of the Internet has shown us anything, it's that the next hot thing is just around the corner.
Emphasizing threats such as sexual predation of children online can distract attention and divert resources from the larger issues around sexual molestation of children. Although there have been serious instances in which a stranger has gone to meet a child in person after first having met them through MySpace, unrelenting publicity has distorted the danger. Combining the fear of strangers abducting children with the mysterious world of the Internet makes for a great headline. In fact, however, when it comes to sexual assaults on children, 93 percent of the offenders are either family members or acquaintances of the victim, according to data from the Department of Justice.
It is true that numerous sexual predators have been found lurking on MySpace. But children are smarter than we give them credit for, and evidence of the need for intervention on MySpace is thin.
Going after the bogeyman of online sexual predators of children may make us feel good, but it does little to address the larger and more relevant issues around families and child safety.