MySpace’s name implies where responsibility lies

  • By Victor Balta / Herald Columnist
  • Monday, June 26, 2006 9:00pm
  • Life

MySpace.com, the social networking Web site used by an estimated 87 million people, is especially popular with teenagers and is the hot topic these days.

The site is under heavy fire lately with the revelation of sexual assaults involving people who met online and decided to meet face-to-face.

The Herald has reported the story of a Mountlake Terrace woman who was raped earlier this month by a man she met on MySpace and invited to her home, and a 26-year-old Lake Stevens man who pleaded guilty to child molestation after having sex with a 13-year-old he met on the site.

These are horrible crimes, to be sure. Poor judgment or not, no one deserves to be violated, and those who are found guilty deserve the most the justice system can throw at them.

But it’s silly to point our mouse-clicking fingers at MySpace.com for the choices people make when they decide to take their interactions out of the Internet’s fantasyland and into reality.

Imagine MySpace is your local library branch. It’s free. It’s available to virtually anyone who wants to come in.

Now imagine that library branch can hold 87 million people at once.

The first stage of lunacy is to think the librarian on duty can keep tabs on everything that is happening inside.

The next level of absurdity is to hold the librarian responsible for whatever happens to visitors after they leave the building.

But that’s what some people think MySpace.com ought to do, and now they’re having lawyers do the talking.

A 14-year-old Texas girl is suing the site for $30 million, claiming it doesn’t do enough to verify users’ ages. A 19-year-old man sexually assaulted the teen after they met on MySpace.

The girl’s lawyer was interviewed on “The Dave Ross Show” on KIRO (710 AM) last week and gave no insight into what claim he has against the site. Although sexual predators are said to lie about their age and pose as teenagers, the 19-year-old had his real age on his profile, the lawyer admitted.

Again, the 19-year-old man should be prosecuted for his crimes, but that doesn’t justify a $30 million lawsuit against the site.

The attorney was asked repeatedly, yet totally failed to answer the simple question: What should MySpace do differently?

There is no answer.

MySpace is just a place to hang out. It’s a virtual coffee shop. You can’t entirely control who’s there, and as long as the Internet remains relatively anonymous and faceless, you don’t really know who’s who.

The recent outrage is the classic fear of the unknown. MySpace is a new phenomenon, and we’re not sure how to react.

Yet, with 87 million people – more than 10 times New York’s population – and only occasional but high-profile unfortunate incidents, one could argue that MySpace is one of the safest “communities” on the planet.

As a smart business practice, MySpace should continue to enhance its security measures to protect users as much as possible, and improvements announced last week aimed at keeping the profiles of minors off limits to anyone who doesn’t already know them are a good start.

But the onus is ultimately on the users to make smart decisions about where they draw the line between their computerized society and the real one.

In other words, don’t take virtual candy from strangers.

Columnist Victor Balta: 425-339-3455 or vbalta@heraldnet.com

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