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MySpace unveils Web safety panel

Harvard center to run task force

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Associated Press / February 29, 2008

NEW YORK - Leading Internet scholars at Harvard University will convene a yearlong task force to explore how children can avoid unwanted contact and content when using MySpace and other popular online hangouts.

The Internet Safety Technical Task Force is the result of an agreement that MySpace reached with all state attorneys general except Texas' in January. It will be made up of leading Internet service companies and nonprofit groups, including those focused on children's safety.

MySpace, a unit of News Corp., created the task force, named its members, and chose Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society to run it, but the group will operate independently, said John Palfrey, Berkman's executive director. Its recommendations will be nonbinding.

Although the task force grew out of concerns that attorneys general have about sexual predators who target children on social-networking sites, it will also explore how to keep children safe from online bullies and pornography.

Palfrey said the group would consider how technology could bring safety "without causing collateral damage." Procedures for verifying users' ages are expected to be among the topics of discussion.

Many experts argue that age-verification technology won't work because children lack driver's licenses and appear in few databases that are used to check birthdays. Still, law-enforcement officials have been calling for its use.

The fears about online predators come despite research, sponsored by the government-funded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, showing fewer youths receiving sexual solicitations over the Internet as they become smarter about where they hang out and with whom they communicate.

The Berkman Center has long been exploring the intersection of technology, policy, and culture.

"The Berkman Center's impressive research on the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet makes them the ideal leader for the task force," Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said in a statement.

Tools identified by the task force would be available industrywide, including MySpace's rivals, Nigam said.

Palfrey will head the effort with two Berkman scholars: Danah Boyd, a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student who is among the leading researchers on social-networking sites, and Dena Sacco, a former federal prosecutor in child-exploitation cases.

Task force members include social-networking sites Facebook and Bebo; Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., and AOL; service providers Comcast, AT&T Inc., and Verizon Communications Inc.; and child-safety groups such as the missing children's center.

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