MySpace Faces Blame After Teen Assaulted
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
It's become one of the world's most popular web destinations, but the social networking site MySpace has also become a target. This week a teenager in Texas sued MySpace after someone she met on the Web site allegedly assaulted her sexually. Several attorneys general are also asking the Web site to make changes because of similar cases in their states. Larry Schooler of member station KUT in Austin has more on the criticism of MySpace and what the people who run the Web site plan to do about it.
LARRY SCHOOLER reporting:
MySpace says you can't become a member of the Web site until you reach your 14th birthday. Apparently the Web site can't guarantee that. Attorney Carl Barry's newest client joined at age 13, mostly to talk to her friends, perhaps to make new friends. Barry is representing the now 14-year-old girl from the Austin area whom he won't name because she's a minor. The girl met someone new on MySpace. He said he was a senior in high school. She eventually gave him her phone number and the two later met in person. That's when Austin police say the 19-year-old man sexually assaulted her.
Mr. CARL BARRY (Attorney): I believe that there is individual responsibility. Did she make a mistake? Yes. Does she wish she could take it back? I'm sure every minute of the day she does.
SCHOOLER: But attorney Carl Barry thinks MySpace bears some responsibility too. Barry says the Web site was supposed to ensure that no adult member could contact a young MySpace member who is a minor without already knowing her.
Mr. BARRY: I think the Internet's a valuable tool. I don't want to shut down MySpace. I mean, I want kids of all ages to be able to access the Library of Congress. And if they want to chat with each other, that's fine. But I don't see the social benefit of allowing children to talk to complete adult strangers online.
SCHOOLER: In his legal battle against MySpace, Barry has some friends in high places, like Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Mr. GREG ABBOTT (Texas Attorney General): I wasn't coming to do anything. I just wanted to meet the person.
SCHOOLER: Investigators from Abbott's office videotaped the arrest of John David Hayne(ph)at a house near Austin last December. Hayne went to the house hoping to meet a young girl he found on MySpace. He had actually been chatting with undercover investigators. Court documents filed in a lawsuit against MySpace show police across the country have made more than a dozen similar arrests in the past six months. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and attorneys general in states like Connecticut, Ohio and Massachusetts want MySpace and other social networking Web sites to strengthen their security measures.
Mr. ABBOTT: These sites should require more stringent age verification measures. It is too easy to locate underage profiles on the hosting sites.
Mr. HEMANSHU NIGAM (Chief Security Officer, MySpace): The age verification question is one of a technology question. And that's one thing that all of us in the industry are facing today.
SCHOOLER: Hemanshu Nigam is MySpace's Chief Security Officer. This week the Web site announced new security measures, a move they said was unrelated to the Austin lawsuit. MySpace says it can't absolutely verify a member's age, but for now, unless you know the full name or email address of a 14 or 15-year-old, you won't be able to find them on MySpace. In fact, all members will now be able to make their profiles private. But as Nigam explains, there's only so much a Web site like MySpace can do.
Mr. NIGAM: We have part of our responsibility, but it's a shared responsibility. And parents are part of that responsibility, to teach teens about safety and security, just like they do every single day in the offline world.
SCHOOLER: Should MySpace be treated any differently than another public space like a mall? Maybe, says Ronald Mann. He's written about Internet liability issues at the University of Texas Law School. Mann says MySpace might have special responsibilities, given the number of recent reports of sex assaults by older MySpace members.
Mr. RONALD MANN (University of Texas Law School): Two people meet at a bar and they leave the bar and something bad happens, your first reaction would be, well, the bar shouldn't be liable for that. But suppose that you change the facts a little bit and you discover that there's a group of people that come to the bar every single night solely for the purpose of finding underage children and harming them, and the bar knows about it. Well, if start with those facts you would think, well, surely the bar should be liable.
SCHOOLER: That's a question an Austin judge will take up later this year. Some lawmakers don't want to wait that long. A bill introduced in Congress last month would keep minors from using sites like MySpace at schools and libraries. In the meantime teenagers continue signing up for MySpace profiles. In the digital age, the company says, it's how millions of them want to communicate and there's no reason to stop them.
For NPR News, I'm Larry Schooler in Austin.