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MySpace, Facebook spar over family safety

Let's get beyond marketing pitches driven by third parties, such as that by Sentinel, the security company MySpace used to identify accounts of registered sex offenders.

MySpace announced on Tuesday that it has deleted 90,000 accounts owned by registered sex offenders. It's good news for families, for MySpace, and for the state attorney general of Connecticut, who demanded last month that the News Corp.-owned social network turn over a roster of names.

It's especially good news for Sentinel, the security company that MySpace used to track down the accounts. And now Sentinel appears to be trying to take advantage of its success with MySpace into a PR campaign partly aimed at getting Facebook into signing a contract as well.

John Cardillo, the CEO of Sentinel, gave an interview to TechCrunch in which he said thousands of those who were banned from MySpace can now be found on Facebook--not yet one of Sentinel's clients.

"As the first and only social-networking site to use state-of-the-art technology to identify and remove registered sex offenders from its site, MySpace is proud of its leadership position and hopes that Facebook follows our lead in providing their members with the same protections," a statement from MySpace read. "As part of our long-standing partnership with law enforcement and state attorneys general, we will continue to readily provide information on these removed offenders for their investigations."

Unfairly accused? With the headline of the TechCrunch post referring to sex offenders on Facebook as "refugees," and Cardillo calling the Palo Alto-based social network a "safe haven" for them, you'd think that there was some kind of mass creation of Facebook profiles on the part of sex offenders who had seen their MySpace profiles axed. There is, however, no evidence of that. Millions of people have profiles on both social networks, so it's safe to assume that sex offenders probably do as well.

Facebook's representatives weren't thrilled by the "safe haven" allegation, to say the least.

"For a company that has a mission to keep kids safe, we find it irresponsible that they wouldn't share this with us," representative Barry Schnitt told TechCrunch in an addendum to the tech blog's original post. "Or, if not with us, how about with law enforcement? This could have been an announcement that Sentinel and Facebook removed 8,000 potential sex offenders. We still don't have the information on who they are. If you are willing to share that with us, we will investigate immediately."

Later, Schnitt told CNET News that while about 4,600 of the 8,000 names on Sentinel's list were directly tied to Facebook user IDs and have now had the corresponding accounts disabled, the rest only matched up to names. One of the names on the list, for example, was "Aaron Smith"--which has more than 500 member matches on Facebook.

Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, also described in a reaction to the story how Facebook monitors its service to protect minors. "We have not yet had to handle a case of a registered sex offender meeting a minor through Facebook," he said in a statement.

PR scuffles between Facebook and MySpace are nothing new. In this case, however, it appears that a third party, Sentinel, is using its success with one client (MySpace) to force another (Facebook) into signing up for the service as well--and is doing so by manipulating media coverage to back Facebook into a corner.

What we would prefer to see is a more pragmatic and methodical policing of social networks for ongoing threats. Shock-and-awe press tactics aren't the way to go, especially because threats on the Web are much more complicated than they may appear.

Let's all take a deep breath and remember that this is about the safety of kids everywhere, not about marketing or selling a product, or looking better in the eyes of the world than your industry competitor.