Filed Monday in the District Court of Travis County, Texas, the suit claims that MySpace and News Corp. were fully aware that sexual predators were getting in touch with children on the site, but did nothing to stop it. The suit seeks damages both for fraud and negligence in misrepresenting the site's security measures to protect children and teens.
I'm all for protecting children from those who would harm or exploit them, but I'm pretty sure that I don't blame MySpace here. For their part, MySpace has responded to the lawsuit by promising to establish new rules that they say will help, and I'm glad to see that. Ultimately, though, they can't — and shouldn't — make the system sufficiently tight that such activities are arbitrarily difficult.
The point of these social-network systems is to make it easy for people to share personal information with others. Restricting what can be shared would squelch that. Requiring proof of identity, and background checks, would squelch that. And, with millions of members signed up, the service simply hasn't the resources to check the backgrounds of everyone who joins. If a 14-year-old girl hangs out in front of the Kwik-E-Mart and gets picked up by a 19-year-old, it's not the Kwik-E-Mart's fault.
But the kids to have to be protected, and it seems to me that the first line of that protection has to be the parents. They must be aware of what their kids are doing; they must advise their kids, and teach then about this stuff; they must foster a family environment where their kids can talk to them about it.
Schools and religious institutions form the second line of defense, teaching kids about the technology and the dangers, and providing them with people to talk to when they need advice. Using the analogy above, the parents have to be aware of where their daughter's going, and they and the community have to provide alternatives to hanging out at the Kwik-E-Mart.
A major problem here, as I see it, is that many parents simply don't understand what these social-networking services are all about. They often don't know that they exist, don't know what they entail, don't know what can and can't be done with them, and don't know who else is there. And it's not clear that the teachers and community leaders do either. We have a "generation gap" that's perhaps worse than ones that have gone before, a situation in which the kids have embraced a new, technological social environment that the adults, having not experienced it, don't understand.
And so maybe the first thing we have to do is teach the adults, so that they may teach, advise, and monitor the children.
But it won't do to have the adults adbicate their responsibility by filing lawsuits and trying to blame the social networks.