News Corp's social network MySpace is developing software which will put responsibility for protecting teenagers in the hands of parents.
The project, codenamed "Zephyr", aims to pacify critics who point to repeated examples of child abusers using MySpace to groom victims. MySpace's browsing rules are notably free and easy compared to other big social networks like Facebook, which requires users to approve each person to view their profile.
The minimum age to join MySpace is currently 14. This gives advertisers access to a notoriously difficult to reach demographic, but has caught the eye of 33 state attorneys, who are investigating action to force the minimum up to 16. The lawyers, led by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, want MySpace to cross check users' details with government databases to verify their age too.
Current privacy measures on MySpace are designed to render 14 and 15-year-olds' profiles unbrowsable by over-18s, though security concerns emerged in summer when a hack was posted.
Zephyr would alert parents of name, age and location data which teens enter into their profile or alter. Working like a piece of spyware, it would log the information in a password-protected file on a computer's hard disk for parents to monitor. Accessing the profile from a remote location would see any changes added to the log on the parental machine. Of course, this would not prevent teenagers maintaining a profile with false age information from public access computers.
MySpace security spokesman Hemanshu Nigam told the Wall Street Journal the firm had failed to find an effective age verification solution. He said: "We've spoken to a number of companies and we have not yet found a firm or technology that can reliably verify the age of our members under 18." Nigam doesn't think the privacy hit will put off its young users.
MySpace's hopes of heading off legal moves to push it into safer practice look set to be dashed, however. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who co-chairs the group of 33, said Zephyr "notifies the parent too late. At best it's after the child has offered his age. At worst, it's when he's already left to meet a child predator". ®