Police in Connecticut say that as many as seven teenage girls may have been sexually assaulted by men they met through MySpace.com. The girls say they were fondled or had sex with men who turned out to be older than they claimed.
Police say one man traveled 1,000 miles to prey on one of the girls he found through the site, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Saying he was "deeply disturbed" by the reports, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he is investigating whether criminal charges can be brought against the site's operators.
Users of the social networking site create profiles that can include photos, personal information and even cell phone numbers.
"My office has received numerous complaints over the last month that minors can easily post and view inappropriate and sexually suggestive material on Myspace.com, possibly in violation of state law," Blumenthal said.
"My office investigated and confirmed that children can readily view not only inappropriate material, but also obscene images through the site's free and publicly accessible areas. The site posts no warnings that pornography and adult content are present and has no mechanism to prevent minors from viewing obscene material," Blumenthal said.
MySpace is one of the fastest growing websites in the country, collecting more than 50 million members in just two years. But there is a dark side to the site.
"It is a predator's dream come true, this Web site," Middletown, Conn., Police Sgt. Bill McKenna said. "Because not only can you see them, but you can see their friends. You can find out where they go to middle school and high school."
Not many parents are aware of the site but a few are beginning to campaign for tougher enforcement of the site's existing rules.
"Many of the (profiles) are sexual in nature and riddled with profanity, which is not allowed according to their TOC, but they're all up there. Their TOC is bogus. Its just posted to cover them legally. They're clearly not monitoring the activity of their 'members,' said Augustine of Glen Oaks, NY, in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.
"Kids can easily view the very sexually explicit sites of adults ... and there are plenty. One under-age kid talks about his 'love of his gun' ... well rememeber Columbine?" she asked.
Connecticut's Blumenthal agrees.
"I am shocked and dismayed that the operators of Myspace.com fail to shield minors from pornographic images and that the web site may have been used by sexual predators targeting minors. As a parent, I find it appalling and abhorrent that a web site would so poorly police its pages. This site is a parent's worst nightmare.
"Internet sites have a legal and moral responsibility to protect children from obscene images and inappropriate material. Internet site owners who shirk their legal responsibilities should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
MySpace.com said in a statement that it has a series of initiatives designed to protect its users against inappropriate conduct and content. They include dedicating workers to monitor the site 24 hours a day, reviewing every image hosted by the site and working with law enforcement agencies.
The site prohibits use by anyone younger than 14, though a disclaimer says the site operators can't always tell if users are lying about their ages.
"It is extremely easy for any underage kid to access the site," said Augustine in her complaint. "You don't even have to be a member to access member websites. They're available by just doing a search on Google. They refer to their TOC but naturally it means squat."
Many school districts around the country have blocked the site from their computers.
Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns Fox Television, bought MySpace.com in July 2005 for $580 million. He recently told investors he had plans to expand the site internationally.
"We're taking it out around the world," he said. "First in Britain, then in Western Europe, and then in other countries."
The site recently began offering free video downloads. It also plans to launch a branded instant messenger client as well as voice communications.
Speaking at the Citigroup Entertainment, Media and Telecommunications Conference, Murdoch discussed morphing MySpace.com into a "next-generation portal."
"Young people today -- who are the great users of the Internet -- know exactly what sites they want to go to and they go there, they don't have to work their way through Yahoo!'s homepage, or MSN," he said.
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