Why MySpace Doesn't Card
Lisa Lerer, 01.25.07, 11:00 AM ET
MySpace doesn't ask its members for much--it just wants them to be at least 14 years old.
But even that low bar is easy to hurdle for a determined youngster: News Corp.'s (nyse: NWS - news - people ) popular social networking site simply asks new users to supply a name, ZIP code, valid e-mail address and a qualifying birth date.
That's just fine with the MySpace users who have created 150 million profiles on the site. But it worries some parents, regulators and lawmakers, who worry that the site doesn't do enough to keep kids safe from malicious adults.
MySpace has spent the past year responding to the critics. Last April, the company hired Hemanshu Nigam, a former Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) security chief and federal prosecutor, to head the company's security efforts.
In December, Nigam announced a partnership with Miami-based identity-verification company Sentinel Tech Holding to build a database of the 550,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. The site will delete the profile of any MySpace member who matches up. Last week, the company acknowledged that it's developing special software that will allow parents to monitor the public information visible on their children's profiles. And this week the company said it would broadcast Amber alerts on the site, alerting users to abducted children in their area.
Yet none of these measures will prevent underage users from signing up. That's because there is no effective way to do so, MySpace argues.
A coalition of 34 state attorneys general, led by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, doesn't buy it. "If we can put a man on the moon, or create the Internet for that matter, we can have effective age verification," he says. The attorneys general say that MySpace better find a way to start carding--and fast--or the company will end up in court.
Checking online age and identities may not be rocket science. But even sites that want to scrutinize their visitors have a hard time keeping children out. In large part that's because young people, unlike adults, don't generate a lot of usable data fingerprints. "We don't view teenagers as legal entities, so there's no paper trail on them," says Sentinel Tech Chief Executive John Cardillo.
Cardillo, whose company verifies identities for age-sensitive sites like dating services and cigarette vendors, starts by asking users for basic information. Name, address, birth date, and partial Social Security number are the standard first questions. Sentinel then runs those facts through various databases, searching for confirming documents like property records, vehicle registration and voter rolls. Anyone who doesn't make the cut is locked out of the site.
For the average adult, Cardillo says he can usually find about 15 different points of reference. But for most people under 21, there's simply not enough data. "You might find a handful in any batch you run on users 18-21, but there's not enough information that could you could call it an effective solution," he says.
But minors do have one very comprehensive source of information: their parents. Several identification companies peddle products that include parents in the sign-up process.
Zoey's Room, an online community for girls aged 10 to 14, uses a service from Atlanta-based IDology. The site sends an e-mail to a member's parents asking them to confirm their child's membership, and charges them $20 to participate in the chat room and message boards. When parents pay, IDology confirms that they are the legal guardian. The fee, according to the site, funds the safety features.
Xologi, another social network aimed at children also uses IDology but hopes to take safety a step further by involving their schools. To get on the site, anyone under 18 first has to get permission from his or her parents. A school moderator then verifies the identity of each student and signs them up according to class. Xologi then e-mails the parent, who activates the child's account. Only after everyone has signed off do the children get an e-mail with a password allowing them into the site.
"I don't want to be the Web company that when you put in 'boob' all this stuff will come up," says Xologi President Bryant Campbell. "There's a place for everyone online, but you don't need kids in all of them."
U.K.-based NetIDMe takes a similar approach. The company offers children an electronic business card that they can swap with others before they start to chat. Before they can get the card, they need permission from both a parent and another adult, like a priest or a teacher. NetIDMe verifies both adults' identities through traditional means. In its first few months of operation, NetIDMe signed up 100,000 users. The company is in talks with social networking sites, says Managing Director Alex Hewitt, but not with MySpace.
Some sites try monitoring young users without parental involvement. In 2005, Facebook started accepting high school students, forcing the site to deal with the age issue. Previously the site was used only by college students and alumni, who were required to sign up using their university-issued e-mail address.
About 15% of high schools also issue their own e-mails, according to Facebook Privacy Officer Chris Kelly, and the site accepts those, no questions asked. The other 85% of high schoolers can get on the site only through an invitation from an existing member. "There's a neighborhood watch program around who gets into a high school network," says Kelly. Users can see only the full profiles of their friends, or people who have accepted their invitation.
Facebook's verification-heavy system comes at a cost. The site lags behind MySpace in page views and members. Facebook has 14 million registered members, a tenth of MySpace's population. Last November, MySpace got about 57 million unique visitors, more than three times Facebook's 16.7 million, according to comScore Media Metrix data.
"It definitely slows the growth of the community," says Kelly. "But it also validates it, because ultimately you're reaching real people." Or at least older people.
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