FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Thousands of sex offenders invade MySpace, and YouTube plays a growing role in the race for the White House. Here to help us sort through the latest Internet news is NEWS & NOTES tech expert Mario Armstrong. He also covers technology for member stations WYPR and WEAA in Baltimore. Hey, Mario.
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hey, Farai. How are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm great. Well, what's not so great is these sex predators online. Tell me exactly what's going on.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, this is a major issue. We're talking about 29,000 registered sex offenders have been outed, if you will, on the social networking Web site MySpace, which is traveled by and used by many kids and used across the country. And so many folks and parents and government officials are all up in arms about the access that a lot of these registered sex offenders have, this ease of access of being able to establish a profile on a highly trafficked Web site where they can just join in conversations with possibly, you know, unsuspecting youth or others that don't really know that sex offenders are out there trying to solicit them.
CHIDEYA: So this comes after government pressure, state attorneys general, and what's MySpace going to do now with all of these people (unintelligible)?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. So last May, about eight attorney generals demanded more information from MySpace. And soon after that, MySpace deleted about 7,000 offenders, which is way shy of this recent number of 29,000. And I did a quick scan of media reports over the last six months — over the first six months, rather, of this year of 2007, and a review of some of the media reports points to about a hundred criminal incidents which is a double from 2006.
So there is a lot to think about here and look at. So right now the company, MySpace, has announced last December a relationship with a technology firm called Sentinel Technology with the idea of using Sentinel Tech to help them delete and match up registered sex offenders with the MySpace database and then remove and delete those.
So they've taken some steps. They also have instituted a brand new piece of software that they had mentioned earlier this year in January called Zephyr, which is kind of like a parent-monitoring software called ParentCare. But these are just two of the steps so far that MySpace has taken to kind of step up to this. But I don't know if this all - should be placed on MySpace.
CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I just don't think that — I think, you know, parents are passing some of these buck, I think, to government, and I think government is passing some of these buck to the businesses themselves. And I think when it comes down to it, at the end of the day, what we need to be focusing on is preparing our kids for this Internet generation. Look, the Internet is raw. It's unfiltered. It's unmoderated by nature, which is one of the things that people love about the Internet.
You have to teach your children how to communicate and how to make good quality decisions in this digital age that they live in. You can't pass the buck to technology, you can't pass it to software, government or business. It has to start in the home.
CHIDEYA: So in North Carolina, there is a bill in the state House that would essentially require tighter parental verification standards before minors could access sites like MySpace. Now, the Internet companies are not so excited about that. When you talk about parental involvement, do you mean like essentially a complex series of passwords and hoops and loops that kids would have to get through to actually use, (unintelligible)?
ARMSTRONG: Right. And then you know what, and they're not going to use that on - whatever that online thing is that has all of those of challenges or obstacles, they just won't use.
CHIDEYA: They'll go to their cousin's house, right?
ARMSTRONG: They'll go to their cousin's house. They'll go to a coffee shop. They'll get access another way. Or they'll visit a different Web site that doesn't have all of those parameters. You can't really fight this just with technology. And I think it's very naive for us as a people to think that we can fight this with just technology.
Look, a lot of kids are very intelligent, right? They're smart. When I talk to some of the kids that I mentor, these teenagers, they tell me they can tell when someone's soliciting them, and they know how to block them or report them. Now, I haven't done a full study to be able to say that I feel comfortable that all kids can do that because clearly, kids - there was a recent police officer, I believe he's in North Carolina - that was able to solicit a 14-year-old, and raped this 14-year-old.
So these incidents are happening. And I think it's a combination of parental involvement, technology and legislation. But bottom line, Farai, I just don't understand how a registered sex offender can get access to a Web site like this. I mean, they can't live near schools, so why isn't this maybe, you know, a crime or a part of their release package that they can't use these types of Web sites.
CHIDEYA: Interesting. So your bit of advice to parents as a parent?
ARMSTRONG: You know, as a parent, I still think that monitoring is not Big Brother. I think we need to get past that. I think our kids are living in this digital age, and it's smart to invest in monitoring software. There's tons of different software that's out there. You can look at things like safetyspace.com, or spectorsoft.com or imsafer.com.
Various resources, you can find them on my Web site, as well, at marioarmstrong.com that I think parents should look at to really monitor their kids' activity because it's just not MySpace. It's Facebook, and there are Web sites out there for 12- and 17-year-olds, like Bebo and M.V(ph). And these are social networking sites, and I talk to parents and they don't even know what half the lingo is that's out there. So I think our parents really need to step up and become more involved with our kids' digital activities.
CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to take a quick tour of the blogosphere. YouTube and the debate's political interactivity. So you had this Monday's debate between Democratic White House hopefuls. It was videotaped questions posted on YouTube and then hosted by CNN with real people.
So Mario, was this a success or a gimmick?
ARMSTRONG: From a technologist's perspective, I think this went over fantastic. It was uncharted territory. It was totally unpredictable. I mean, look, the bottom line is that America rolled out of bed and had an opportunity to actually talk to a presidential hopeful, and that hasn't been done before.
When you look at some of the questions that were raised, I mean, I remember a lot of people are talking about how this was the lowest in terms of emotional response, but this one question about whether or not black should receive reparations was still a question that has received over 40,000 views on the YouTube Web site.
So forget the debate, which happened in just one hour or two hours - whatever it was - on CNN. We're now talking about all these questions and responses are still up on the Internet. The discussion has continued to go on, which is great because I think the younger generation needed to feel closer to the process, and I think this helped to make that marriage(ph) more successful.
CHIDEYA: So if you're someone who is, say, a YouTube fan, and now people starts soliciting videos from you, what should you be aware of when you are videotaping yourself and trying to get attention? I'm assuming that dressing like Obama girl is really not the way that you need to go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ARMSTRONG: So wait. Are you referring to like all of the spoofs and other things that people have been…
CHIDEYA: No, I'm referring to how real people, whether or not if - I heard that the CNN-YouTube event called over 3,000, you know, video…
ARMSTRONG: Of video clips, right.
CHIDEYA: …down to the 30. So if you want yours to be in that 30, what should you keep in mind?
ARMSTRONG: Oh I see. How do you get your sign(ph)?
CHIDEYA: How do you get on?
Mr. ARMSTRONG: How do you get your five minutes of fame? You're right. Three thousand clips were submitted - only 39 were actually used. I believe in the September debate with the Republicans, we will probably see that right - the number had skyrocket. But you have to be creative. You have to talk about an issue that is of concern, but do it in a way that a typical moderator wouldn't ask a question. And that's where I think traditional media thinks this thing is frivolous or just, you know, a whack-out experiment and that some of the questions that were asked seemed to be done in a joking way.
One that stands out that was very creative was the gay couple. The two ladies that were there and said, hey, would you allow me to get married? And then they looked at each other and said, to each other. And it was very simple, short, to the point. So I think short is good, creative is good. An issue that would resonate, that's personal to you. Not just some far-fetched issue, but an issue that's personal to you will come across well on the camera.
CHIDEYA: All right. Good coaching advice. Thanks a lot, Mario.
ARMSTRONG: We'll see.
CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is NEWS & NOTES tech contributor. He also covers technology for member stations WYPR and WEAA in Baltimore and spoke with us from the studios of the Baltimore Sun.