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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 11:03 GMT
Is the MySpace net closing in?
By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Internet user
MySpace wants to show it is taking action on grooming
Social networking site MySpace is working on new software aimed at protecting its younger users from predators. But will this go far enough to keep children safe?

It is the latest internet scare story to confront parents - online paedophiles posing as teenagers, attempting to exploit young surfers.

Fears about abusers "grooming" victims have thrown the spotlight on hugely popular web communities like MySpace and Bebo, where as many as 61% of 13 to 17-year-olds are estimated to have a profile.

Mindful of the public's concern, MySpace, the most popular of these sites, has confirmed it is working on software to keep parents informed about what their children are doing on the net.

The project, codenamed Zephyr, would alert parents to the name, age and location details entered by the youngster on the profile of his or her homepage. Even if they tried to change these from another computer, the home PC would be alerted.

MySpace want to put more of the burden of protecting teenagers online on parents by having them download the Zephyr software
Chris Williams, The Register

Because the minimum age to register on the site is 14, and 14 and 15-year-olds' profiles can only be browsed - not contacted - by over-18s, MySpace believes Zephyr is a significant step forward in protecting its users.

But the programme would do nothing to prevent adults posing as teenagers, or stop children running an entirely separate profile from outside the home.

'Inappropriate contact'

Alex Nagle, head of harm reduction at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, a law enforcement body affiliated to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, says he welcomes any attempt to make the web safer, but parents had to remain vigilant.

He adds: "No single approach, including access control systems, is failsafe in protecting children from inappropriate contact and materials. Unfortunately it is not possible to guarantee the credibility of other internet users or their intentions."

MySpace is sensitive to criticism that it has not done enough to crack down on grooming. It is being sued by the families of five teenage girls who claim they were sexually assaulted by men they met through the site.

Last year a similar lawsuit was launched by 14-year-old Texas girl and her mother.

MySpace spokesman Chris McCafferty hopes Zephyr will be available by summer 2007.

"We believe that parents are the first line of defence when it comes to protecting teens in the offline and online worlds," he says.

MySpace logo
The best way to find out what is on your child's MySpace profile is to ask to see it
Bill Thompson

But Chris Williams from technology news site The Register believes the network, which was bought in 2005 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for $580m (295m), is simply trying to evade responsibility.

"MySpace want to put more of the burden of protecting teenagers online on parents by having them download the Zephyr software," he argues.

"The technology is similar in some ways to 'spyware' sometimes surreptitiously loaded onto computers by internet fraudsters to log banking details, or by online advertising companies to keep track of people's browsing habits."

More than 80 million people have registered with MySpace, which gives users their own homepage and lets them network with others.

A typical page will feature a user's interests, a list of their favourite music and films, a photo gallery, video clips and a blog. It has been credited with launching the music careers of Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen.


Bill Thompson, BBC News technology columnist, adapted a US parents' guide to MySpace for a UK audience.

He believes the site is a great social tool for children, but doubts Zephyr will do much to make them safer.

"The best way to find out what is on your child's MySpace profile is to ask to see it. If you've not got the sort of relationship where you can do that, then an intrusive bit of spyware won't help," he says.

"Parents should sign up themselves and find out what it's all about. Most children will use it to maintain friendship circles they have already got."

MySpace is sued over child safety
19 Jan 07 |  Business
MySpace to 'block sex offenders'
07 Dec 06 |  Technology
Warnings over social site 'abuse'
14 Sep 06 |  Technology
Safety tips for social networks
04 Jul 06 |  Technology

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