If executives at MySpace expected to win praise as good corporate citizens for ridding their Web site of 29,000 registered sexual offenders, those hopes have vanished by now.
Since the news came out, criticism of the social networking site only seems to have grown among public officials, parent and watchdog groups, and the general public.
To be sure, there are grounds for discontent. A few months ago, in response to inquiries from several attorney generals, MySpace gave the impression that there were only 7,000 registered sex offenders on the Web site and that it had shut them out.
How and why the discrepancy occurred is unclear. MySpace declined to speak to TechNewsWorld for this story.
However, the firm did e-mail a statement to the media.”We partnered with Sentinel Tech to build technology to remove registered sex offenders from our site,” said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer, in the e-mail message. “Through this innovative technology, we’re pleased that we’ve successfully identified and deleted these registered sex offenders and hope that other social networking sites follow our lead.”
News that a Web site’s lax security may endanger children spreads fast. The public reacts. Congress reacts. Legislation is proposed and sometimes passed.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because security issues have been a perennial source of dismay and disagreement: What protections do Web 2.0 sites owe their users? What are the Web sites’ rights as businesses? Where do parents figure in this picture? More fundamentally, what can be done to make the Internet safer?
It is doubtful this particular event will spur any meaningful change. MySpace will likely weather the storm, some members of Congress may use the bully-pulpit to advance their agendas — and worst of all, children will continue to be victimized online.
Parent groups and some government officials want to see social networking sites strengthen user protections even more, but some of the measures they are pushing could render the sites inoperable — or at least very cumbersome to use.
Given the human instinct to protect children, whatever the cost, such motives are understandable — especially in the case of a Web site that was perceived to be child-friendly by parents who may not have been Internet-savvy.
“I think people initially percieved MySpace to be a safe place for young people to socialize, because MySpace presented itself that way,” Susan Shankle, a social worker with a private practice in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., told TechNewsWorld.
“Parents assumed their children were only talking to their friends — without knowing those ‘friends’ were not people the children actually knew. When the parents found out it was not safe at all, lawsuits ensued, and MySpace had to do something.”
… vs. Rights
On the other hand, there’s the argument that parents should be a child’s first line of defense against victimization — if necessary, by curtailing online activities. Also, at what point should the rights of adult users be taken into account?
“It seems that once again, parents are blaming everyone but themselves for their children’s behavior and potential introduction to danger,” Amanda Vega of Amanda Vega Consulting told TechNewsWorld.
“Many consumers do not understand that the online entities aren’t legally supposed to do things such as monitor predatory action or [search] for illicit content,” she commented.
Perhaps the only point of general agreement is that MySpace should have foreseen this crisis and averted it without legal prompting.
“Crisis Planning 101 involves identifying all possible crises that could impact an organization and its publics,” Chris Anderson, communications director at The Marketing Arm in Dallas, told TechNewsWorld.
“Then, you develop plans to prevent the crisis from ever happening in the first place,” he said. “The best way to manage a crisis — and this, by the way, is a crisis for MySpace — is to prevent it from happening.”
Once the crisis gained steam, said Anderson, who also teaches a class in crisis management at Southern Methodist University, MySpace failed to respond quickly.
“Further, they didn’t do an effective job communicating — first, what they were doing about it, and second, how they would prevent it from happening again in the future,” he explained. “Consumers expect major brands to be responsible.”