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In the wake of MySpace verdict, could social networks do more to protect consumers?

November 26, 2008 |  6:08 pm

Megan MeierA federal jury in Los Angeles today delivered a mixed verdict in the MySpace cyber-bullying trial, convicting a Missouri woman of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for creating a phony account on the social networking site that prosecutors said drove a teenage girl to suicide. Lori Drew, 49, faces up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines but was acquitted of the most serious charges against her.

But the jury is still out on whether social networks are doing enough to protect consumers on their sites, say technology and safety experts.

Social networks are a vulnerable place for children, with cyber-bullying becoming increasingly prevalent, technology consultant Rob Enderle said. One-third of U.S. teenagers have been victims of it, according to a Pew Internet Project study released last year. About 39% of social network users reported being bullied in some way, compared with 22% of teens who did not use social networks.

Social networks have security and safety personnel who scour their sites for inappropriate content. "But the reality is that children are at risk on these sites," Enderle said. "Sites do what they can to mitigate those risks. But without becoming incredibly invasive, it would be very difficult for the sites to monitor this kind of behavior and prevent it."

In fact, Enderle said, social networks kept a close eye on the Drew case, hoping for ...

... a stronger verdict that would serve as a deterrent. "Social networking sites are very concerned about this," Enderle said. "There is the potential liability, and it also reflects very badly on the site to be seen as a place for predators to prowl for children."

In a statement issued shortly after the verdict, Beverly Hills-based MySpace, which is owned by media giant News Corp., said: "MySpace does not tolerate cyber-bullying and has cooperated fully with the U.S. attorney in this matter. MySpace respects the jury's decision and will continue to work with industry experts to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and the harm it can potentially cause."

The No. 2 social networking site, Facebook, declined to comment on the verdict.

Online safety expert Linda Criddle says social networks need to take responsibility for activity on their sites and make them safer for consumers, rather than directing blame elsewhere. "I think the industry was hoping there would be a strong verdict blaming one user for abusing another because that way it's not their fault," she said.

Criddle said few social networking sites enforce their own terms of service, giving parents a false sense of security when they allow their children to use the sites.

"It's just the same as if you are at Disneyland and you scream profanities. That is not freedom of speech. You are on Disneyland's property. You have to follow their terms and conditions. If you don't, they escort you out of there," Criddle said. "But these companies claim to have good standards and then do nothing to enforce them. They let people breach their terms and conditions and do nothing about it."

Parry Aftab, a New York lawyer who is executive director of WiredSafety.org, said social networks police their sites for sexual predators, but for other rules violations they mostly rely on consumers to report abuses. She said she was starting a consulting firm to help social networks develop programs to "build terms of service with teeth and figure out how to enforce them."

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Megan Meier, 13, who committed suicide in October 2006 after receiving cruel messages on MySpace. Credit: Associated Press / Family handout

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