NEW YORK--A coalition of law enforcement authorities and representatives from social-networking site MySpace.com gathered Monday morning to unveil an extensive new plan for ensuring the safety of minors on the Internet.
Under the agreement, MySpace has pledged to work with the attorneys general on a set of principles to combat harmful material on social-networking sites (pornography, harassment, cyberbullying, and identity theft, among other issues), better educate parents and schools about online threats, cooperate with law enforcement officials around the country, as well as develop new technology for age and identity verification on social-networking sites.
"Today's announcement is a landmark step forward in providing new protections for teenage members of social-networking sites such as MySpace," Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said at the press conference here.
The new Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking, led by attorneys general Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, consists of Nigam as well as the attorneys general of 49 total U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The group has released a "Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking," which it hopes will achieve industrywide approval from other social-networking sites and Internet providers.
The lone state missing from the task force is Texas. North Carolina's Roy Cooper, speaking on behalf of the coalition's executive committee--Cooper, Blumenthal, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Marc Dann of Ohio--would not comment on the reason why. The members of the executive committee were joined by Anne Milgram, attorney general of New Jersey, as well as Steve Cohen, a representative for New York attorney general Andrew M. Cuomo.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said later on Monday that his office declined to participate because he didn't consider the proposed safety measures to be strong enough.
In the press conference, the attorneys general acknowledged that existing standards of law enforcement simply don't suffice in the rapidly changing climate of the Internet. "You're in an area where what you are looking at today will not be what you're looking at in six months," Cohen said. "There is an exponential change that goes on with each passing week and month, and you really do need to bring together the best minds and the best ideas."
The task force aims for cooperation from other social-networking sites, namely Facebook, which reached its own agreement with Cuomo's office over sex offender data on the site in October. "We are calling on Facebook and other social-networking sites today to adopt these principles, to put these safety practices in effect, and to join the task force," Cooper said. "We think it's critical that this be industrywide.
When a member of the audience asked why reaching an agreement with MySpace had taken this long--the site was founded in 2004--Cooper said that it had been an ongoing process. "We recognized pretty soon that this was going to be a problem and we began pushing legislation, we began exploring litigation, (and) we've been in discussion with MySpace for about two years," Cooper said. "We talked to other social-networking sites. It has taken us this long to culminate in this agreement." He added that the negotiations significantly improved when MySpace was acquired by the News Corp. division Fox Interactive Media in 2005.
Indeed, MySpace's dealings with law enforcement officials have been ongoing. Last spring, a group of eight states' attorneys general wrote an open letter to the site expressing concern about the numbers of registered sex offenders with profiles on the site. After initially asserting that federal and state laws prevented it from meeting the attorneys' requests, MySpace eventually unveiled a preliminary plan for compliance.
The attorneys general confirmed in Monday's press conference that they wanted to avoid legal action against MySpace and social-networking sites in general. "Litigation is costly, time-consuming, (and) uncertain in its result," Blumenthal said. They also acknowledged that law enforcement officials still don't see eye-to-eye with social-networking sites on a variety of issues, namely the feasibility of identity and age verification. The attorneys general believe it's technologically possible; Nigam and the rest of MySpace say it needs more development.
"We are not papering over or concealing our continued differences," Blumenthal said. "This process of discussion has been difficult, daunting, but also extraordinarily educational."