By Hemanshu Nigam, Chief Security Officer, MySpace.com, Santa Monica, California
s people spend more time online, there are greater challenges in keeping them safe. The Internet provides a portal for looking into the lives of many. Personal information is often shared over the Internet for complete strangers to see; information that many would not share to a stranger on the street is given freely on the Internet. An additional challenge for parents and law enforcement is the participation of children and young people on the Internet. Many children lack the experience to avoid dangerous situations and can fall victim to predators.
Methods and practices exist to block a teen from buying adult magazines at the local convenience store. Well-established programs teach young people to avoid strangers at the mall. Citizens appreciate the value of well-lit communities where neighbors and police officers can keep a close eye on what’s happening.
But how are online communities protected? Especially those that grow, as MySpace has, from fewer than 5 million to more than 120 million members in three years? In any community that large, problems are going to occur. The question is, How to deal with them?
Commitment to Safety
MySpace is committed to the safety and security of its community. MySpace personnel meet with law enforcement officials, civic and safety groups, educators, and parents to solicit their viewpoints on how to enhance user safety and to support their local efforts at every level.
Because MySpace believes there is no single solution to the challenges of Internet security, the company employs a wide variety of methods to help protect its visitors. Every policy created, every campaign launched, and every tool employed will be part of a larger set of safety and security solutions.
There are four key principles that guide MySpace’s efforts to keep teens safe online:
1. Protect teens from people with bad intentions
2. Protect teens from inappropriate content
3. Empower teens to protect themselves, empower parents to help protect them, and offer support to organizations dedicated to those goals
4. Ensure that law enforcement has the tools and expertise it needs to bring criminals to justice
Why Does MySpace Exist?
To many Internet users, MySpace is a portal for connecting with friends, discovering popular culture, and making a positive impact on the world. By integrating Web profiles, blogs, instant messaging, e-mail, music streaming, music videos, photo galleries, classified listings, events, groups, college communities, and member forums, MySpace has created a connected community. Today it is among the most widely used and highly regarded sites of its kind. MySpace’s global network includes sites in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Australia, and Ireland.
Web sites like MySpace may strike many adults as unlikely social gathering spots, but for teens they often function much as malls or burger joints did in earlier eras, and the sites are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MySpace users—teens and adults alike—find old friends and family members, plan their social lives, discover new music, promote charities and civic causes, and express themselves creatively on their MySpace pages. MySpace is a new communication mechanism for the Internet generation, incorporating e-mail, instant messaging, and mobile devices. It is also a fast-growing form of entertainment on the Internet.
While the Internet provides exciting opportunities to share information and express creativity, it also presents new challenges in protecting privacy and security. At MySpace, we take seriously our responsibility to provide a safe and well-lit community for all our members. MySpace builds safety into everything it does.
Protecting Users from Predators
One set of tools and policies is designed to send the message to the Internet community that people with bad intentions are not welcome. It includes tools that separate teens and adults from each other to protect them from unwanted contact.
To protect teens from adults, users under 16 years of age are automatically assigned a private profile, meaning that only the user’s friends (that is, persons whom the user has affirmatively chosen to add to his or her friends list) will be able to view the profile. Additionally, only the user’s friends will be able to send e-mail messages or instant messages (IM) to the user or add the user to a blog list. Users over 18 who want to become friends with users ages 14 and 15 must enter the recipient’s last name or e-mail address to be added, and any user can block other users in a specific age range from contacting them.
As further protection for MySpace’s younger users, individuals can never use the site’s browse feature to look for 14 and 15 year olds, and users over 18 cannot browse for those under 18. Accounts deleted for inappropriate content or behavior cannot re-register with the same e-mail address for a minimum of 14 days, at the time of publishing.
MySpace also protects its adult users from teens by blocking users under 18 from browsing for swingers and by allowing adults to choose to prevent underage users from contacting them.
Protecting Users from Inappropriate Content
Another set of systems is devoted to reviewing or limiting access to content that should not be available to our younger users. According to MySpace’s terms of service, inappropriate content includes anything that is patently offensive and promotes racism, bigotry, hatred, or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual; harasses or advocates harassment of another person; exploits people in a sexual or violent manner; contains nudity, violence, or offensive subject matter or contains a link to an adult Web site; solicits personal information from anyone under 18; or promotes information that the user knows is false or misleading or promotes illegal activities or conduct that is abusive, threatening, obscene, defamatory, or libelous.
The MySpace photo policy, which is available via a link from the photo upload section and is a specific safeguard against inappropriate images, prohibits posting photos that contain nudity, pornography, and sexually explicit images. To protect teens, MySpace has strict image policies with hashing to prevent inappropriate image uploads, and user accounts are deleted for uploading pornographic videos. Known inappropriate URLs are blocked from being posted on the site, and all IP logs of image uploads are captured.
To protect teens from content, MySpace blocks users under 18 from joining or viewing mature groups. In addition, MySpace prohibits tobacco and alcohol advertisements on the site from reaching users under 18 and under 21, respectively, and the category on personal profiles that indicates smoking and drinking preferences is entirely blocked for users under the legal age to consume those products.
To support these policies, MySpace safety staff monitors the site closely. Every image, photo, video, and classified advertisement uploaded to the site is reviewed by hand, including group images and staff within minutes of going live. Staff also reviews classified advertisements, and MySpace review groups ensure the proper labeling of content as mature. In addition, MySpace proactively searches for hate content on the site and removes such content upon its discovery.
As younger users are often connected with friends through school-related networks, MySpace engages more than 30,000 school group moderators to oversee school forums to identify any inappropriate content or local issues that threaten the safety of its community and users. These moderators have access to a MySpace employee in the event that a situation arises in which they need assistance.
Empowering Users with Tools and Education
MySpace is committed to keeping users safe but seeks to preserve as much freedom and openness for them as possible. MySpace therefore proactively enforces policies it believes are most crucial to maintaining security and comfort on the site but also provides users with tools that may further ensure their own safety if they choose to use them.
Although MySpace automatically sets the profiles of users under 16 so that only approved friends of those users may view their profiles, all users over 16 also have the option to set their own profiles to their private setting. Users can choose to approve all comments before they are posted to their profiles, block any other specific user from contacting them, conceal the status icon that indicates they are online now, and prevent their images from being forwarded to other sites.
In addition, MySpace encourages users to report inappropriate content or behavior on the site, which is then reviewed and, if appropriate, removed. A contact-MySpace link appears at the bottom of every page on the site. Sexually explicit conduct or content is reported directly to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber-Tip hotline by MySpace staff or by the users themselves.
For these systems to work, users must know what to report and how to report it; effective education is an essential component of any safety strategy. A link to safety tips—basic safety principles to avoid harassment and phishing scams, to cite but two examples, and links to other online safety resources including blocking software—appears next to the contact-MySpace link on each page. Users under age 18 are required to review and agree to these safety tips on signing up for an account.
MySpace safety tips for users include the following basic principles:
- Don’t forget that your profile and MySpace forums are public spaces.
- Be careful about adding strangers to your friends list. People aren’t always who they say they are.
- Harassment, hate speech, and inappropriate content should be reported.
- Don’t post anything that could embarrass you later.
- Don’t mislead people into thinking that you’re older or younger.
- Don’t get hooked by a phishing scam.
Online safety features and tips alone do not constitute an effective education effort. These features complement an ongoing campaign that integrates MySpace’s communications team into the process of promoting safer Internet practices. In collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Advertising Council, MySpace deployed a series of national public service announcements (PSAs) that run on News Corporation’s broad network of distribution channels. Partnerships such as these are essential to disseminating important messages about online safety.
Education and Partnerships
Ultimately, the questions faced online are the same questions that have been confronted forever, and time-tested offline lessons provide some of the solutions to online challenges. As a father, the author tells his four children not only “Don’t talk to strangers at the playground” but also “Don’t talk to strangers on the Internet.”
Education is a shared responsibility and MySpace is committed to doing its part, but it is critical that parents and educators get involved so that they can further spread the word about online safety.
MySpace has a duty to give parents and educators the tools they need to keep teens safe online and have taken several steps in that direction, even beyond the safety tips and the PSA campaign.
First, MySpace created comprehensive guides for parents, educators, and school administrators to educate them about MySpace and how and why teens use it, as well as important safety tips and messages they can send to the teens they mentor. For example, tips for parents remind them to start a conversation with their kids about how and why they use MySpace, report any inappropriate behavior their kids may encounter, talk with their kids about the Internet and its public nature, and remind their kids to find the balance between caution and honesty just as they would in the offline world. These guides are disseminated by means of partnerships with Seventeen magazine, the National School Board Association, the National Association of Independent Schools, and other partners.
Second, MySpace developed relationships with additional organizations including the National PTA, Common-Sense Media, and WiredSafety.org. These respected organizations serve as external experts in safety evaluation procedures, as well as resources and advisors as we develop new tools, guidelines, and technology to make our site ever safer.
Third, we have formed a MySpace Safety Advisory Committee, formally building a team of world-renowned Internet safety experts to help guide us on our safety mission.
Working with Law Enforcement
MySpace understands that in addition to technological tools and education, it must make sure that law enforcement have the tools for prevention and enforcement. MySpace works with local police and investigators regarding user activity and interfaces with law enforcement agencies at local, state, and federal levels. MySpace personnel have met with law enforcement officials from around the world to find out how MySpace can enhance its cooperation with law enforcement and increase user security. MySpace has created streamlined procedures for law enforcement agencies and officials to obtain critical data that can be used to aid in investigations. It published a law enforcement guide to inform law enforcement agencies of these procedures and outline how police officers can work with MySpace regarding subpoenas and requests for information. This guide has been broadly distributed to agencies around the United States. In addition, MySpace created a one-page guide for easy reference for officers. It runs an around-the-clock hotline to receive and respond to law enforcement queries in both emergency and nonemergency cases. The MySpace safety team interfaces directly with law enforcement and helps agencies discover how MySpace can be helpful in their investigations.
Continuing the Conversation
Making the Internet a safer place for self-expression and communication is a goal MySpace shares with parents, educators, users, and law enforcement. MySpace is committed to an ongoing dialogue with law enforcement agencies and officers, and it encourages officers to engage in that dialogue by asking questions, sharing concerns, or offering ideas of what can be done to build a safer site, educate users, and provide the necessary tools to protect users and help law enforcement. ■