MySpace may face legislative crackdown

As November election nears, Republicans say new laws are needed to protect kids from gangs, sex predators on the Net.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Politicians on Tuesday accused MySpace.com and other social-networking sites of failing to protect minors from sexual predators and other malign influences and said a legislative crackdown may be necessary.

During a hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee, politicians argued over the merits of compelling schools and libraries to cordon off access to social-networking sites, requiring some form of an Internet ID that would prove a person's age, or doing nothing at the moment.

"MySpace.com has been a center of drug activity, of gang activity, and of Internet predators," said Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican. "Isn't it entirely appropriate that the state get involved?"

One bill introduced in May would cordon off access from schools and libraries to commercial Web sites that let users create public "Web pages or profiles" and also offer a discussion board, chat room or e-mail service.

"If we could save one child, then it's worth it--that one child, that innocent child who may fall prey during the school hours because the legislation wasn't enacted," said David Zellis, an assistant district attorney in Bucks County, Penn., who testified at the hearing.

MySpace and other social-networking sites like LiveJournal.com and Facebook have come under increasing pressure from members of Congress hoping to appeal to voters before the November elections. The school and library filtering bill--called the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA--is a centerpiece of a poll-driven Republican effort called the "Suburban Agenda."

DOPA defines a broad category that covers far more than social-networking sites such as Friendster and Google's Orkut.com. It would also sweep in a wide range of interactive Web sites and services that allow "users to create Web pages or profiles," including Blogger.com, AOL and Yahoo's instant-messaging features, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which permits in-game chat. (CNET Networks, publisher of CNET News.com, might also be covered because of its member profile feature.)

Another idea that surfaced on Tuesday was to slap some form of age verification on social-networking sites.

"Putting restrictions on children's access to this, such as age verification, will all be steps in the right direction," said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, who also testified.

Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, suggested that Web sites find "a third-party age verification out there that can do that."

But some Democrats, joined by the American Library Association, said the proposals are flawed.

"If the goal is protecting children and combating child exploitation, why should these requirements apply only to schools receiving e-rate funding--the poorer schools?" said Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who represents part of Silicon Valley, also said that DOPA was "really not the prescription to handle this" problem.

For its part, MySpace--now owned by Rupert Murdock's News Corp.--has taken steps this year to assuage concerns among parents and politicians. It has assigned some 100 employees, about one-third of its workforce, to deal with security and customer care, and hired Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, a former Justice Department prosecutor, as chief security officer.

But MySpace declined to send a representative to Tuesday's hearing, a slight that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton called "unfortunate." Barton added that if Internet sites aren't taking adequate precautions, Congress should enact DOPA, "at the very least."

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.