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Law officials say Web study glosses over risks

Danger to youth on social sites downplayed in report

POSTED: June 19, 2009 11:17 p.m.

Is the Internet as dangerous a place for children as "To Catch a Predator" would have us believe?

A report issued earlier this year by a task force created by 49 state attorneys general suggests it is not, saying the risk of "cyberbullying" against children is greater than online sexual solicitation of minors.

But the Georgia Attorney General’s office and Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic agree that the report, "Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies," is flawed.

The 278-page report was issued through Harvard University by a task force created by the attorneys general that included representatives from 29 technology companies, social networking Web sites and advocacy groups.

Among the report’s findings: "Sexual solicitation and predation are serious concerns, but the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters."

The study says minors more often are solicited over the Internet by other minors, and the chance of it happening is more dependent on a child’s own risky behaviors than the technological platform.

Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats minors face, online and offline, the report claims.

Russ Willard, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, said the authors of the report admit that the data they used was outdated. Willard noted that a month after the report’s release, the online social network site MySpace said it identified 90,000 registered sex offenders using its site and was taking steps to remove them.

"At the time they were compiling the report, most of the law enforcement data they were relying on was from before social networking exploded," Willard said.

Indeed, social networking services on the Internet have grown dramatically since just 2006, when MySpace counted 46 million unique users and Facebook, then restricted mainly to students, had 8 million users.

By 2007, MySpace had added 13 million users and Facebook had an additional 11 million.

As of March 2009, Facebook had overtaken MySpace in unique users with 65.7 million, compared to MySpace’s 54.1 million. Most of the growth came from new members older than 30.

Willard said Baker and other state attorneys general are focusing on the recommendations of the report, which include strengthening the software that identifies underage users, better identifying and removing inappropriate images and implementing changes to make it harder for adults to contact children.

Aristotle International, a technology company that specializes in developing political Web sites and databases, issued a harsh criticism of the work of the task force, of which it was a member.

Aristotle said the task force’s objective of developing online identity authentication tools was not met, and that the report "grossly overstates what research tells us about social networking services."

Research on social networking sites is in its infancy, and caution should be used in interpreting the small amount of research done on the topic, according to the company.

There are many unknowns that remain about how to combat the risks to children posed by social networking sites that have seen such explosive growth in recent years, officials say.

"This is clearly a new frontier for law enforcement," Willard said.

Cronic said that the assertion that bullies posed a greater threat to minors than sexual predators didn’t hold true in his jurisdiction.

"We haven’t seen that," Cronic said.

The sheriff’s office continues to make cases against people trying to solicit children online. An ongoing undercover investigation has resulted in numerous arrests in the past few years. Typically those arrested had propositioned an officer who was posing as a minor child.

In Hall County schools, the sheriff’s Advance program teaches fifth-graders about the dangers of the Internet, warning them never to give out private information or communicate with strangers online.

"Everyone would like to believe that online predators have become less prevalent, but we haven’t seen that in law enforcement," Cronic said.

Sheriff’s investigators have at times faced roadblocks in acquiring private information from technology companies, and the report seems to reflect the same general reluctance by some companies to cooperate, Cronic said.

"I think a lot of the things that it would take to strengthen the protection of children are kind of counterproductive to their business plans," Cronic said. "But I think there could be a middle ground. There has to be more done than is being done. I think there can be a higher level of cooperation with law enforcement."

Willard said the attorney general’s office is encouraged by better cooperation from private companies than when the task force was formed.

"Where we are today is a sea change from where we first started," Willard said. "Initially we were met with a great deal of resistance, but MySpace, Facebook and Craigslist are all working toward a direction that the attorneys general and law enforcement wants them to be working toward.

"It’s a process, and we are making progress as we go along."

In a prepared statement, Baker said that "protecting our children from sexual predators, including on social networking sites, remains a critical priority for my office."

Baker said he was pleased with the work some Web sites have done to implement safeguards, but said more safety tools are needed, "and I will continue to work with these social networking sites to create effective safeguards that protect our minors from online predators."



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