Editorial: Taming Web's frontier ways

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 28, 2007

Charles Childers’ recent guilty plea to child pornography and other sex charges illustrates the insidiousness of Internet predators. Childers was chief of police of Landis when he was cruising the net to meet teenage girls and share lewd images. Hiding such fascinations behind a decent, law-abiding facade is all too easy.

It’s important for parents to keep things in perspective. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know — relatives, acquaintances and family friends — not strangers cruising the Internet or the mall.

But Internet crimes like Childers’ are proof positive that the World Wide Web should flash a big caution sign each time young people in particular sign on. They may receive images and meet people they’ll wish they’d never seen.

Parents are gaining some control. MySpace.com, an immensely popular Web site where teens meet new people and network, has announced it will offer free parental notification software to at least reveal what name, age and location their children are posting for themselves on the site. That’s scant data compared to the photos and highly personal information its 60 million monthly users post for all the MySpace world to see. But it may throw some cold water on people intent on abusing the site by misrepresenting themselves — even if the only people being scrutinized are their potential victims.

The lawless frontier days of sites like Facebook and MySpace may be fading. As worst-case scenarios sadly play out and teens are hurt, operators of such sites are feeling the heat from parents and attorneys general to exercise some control. That, in turn, sets off alarms for advertisers worried about being associated with such sites and stockholders who fear losing money on the lawsuits that are bound to come.

And they are coming. Four families of children sexually abused by adults they met on the site filed suit recently against MySpace and its parent company, News Corp. That new monitoring software is too little too late to protect their children — or MySpace’s bottom line. The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages in the millions. Defending itself against these and other suits will cost MySpace big bucks, too. If that doesn’t make a company rethink its practices, nothing will.

MySpace has become so large and now so scrutinized that its coolness factor may be dropping. It serves a fickle clientele with a world of sites at their fingertips. Predators looking for totally uncontrolled access will just move on with them. This will be a constant battle.

North Carolina is on the front lines. It’s not clear from affidavits which Internet site Childers used for meeting teen girls, but his crime merited a visit to Salisbury by state Attorney General Roy Cooper to help announce his indictment. Cooper is co-chairing a group of 33 attorneys general investigating legal action against MySpace. He’s also asking the General Assembly for tougher laws regarding such computer crimes.

With tougher laws, more vigilant parents and tighter restrictions on Web sites, people who peddle in porn and sexual abuse could find the Internet less free-wheeling. They’ll always seek out new prey. But they won’t have reckless corporations or naive parents to help them do it.