By Eric Auchard and Kenneth Li
Rupert Murdoch saw a Web site with monster growth potential in MySpace.com, the online music and dating phenomenon that makes it easy for teens to find friends and express themselves.
The media mogul's News Corp Inc. paid $580 million for MySpace last July. And even as he figures out how to turn more than 56 million MySpace members into higher Internet revenue for News Corp., there is another concern: the safety of its teen denizens.
The phenomenal growth of the Web site and popularity among youngsters has made it a magnet for adult sexual predators, authorities say.
Recent headlines that rival those in Murdoch's tabloids, such as "Man arrested in MySpace.com teen-sex case," "Sex predators are stalking MySpace; is your teenager a target?" and "Space Invaders" have dotted airwaves, newspapers and television news across the United States, triggering a nationwide backlash against the site.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is investigating a number of sexual assaults with links to MySpace.
"What's troubling is the pornography and the access by children," Blumenthal said in a telephone interview.
Teenagers have fueled MySpace's growth by using it as a virtual hangout, like video-game arcades and malt shops that once were gathering places for young people.
"There are a percentage of kids that put up way too much information on MySpace about themselves," said Monique Nelson, executive director of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit Internet safety organization based in Santa Ana, California.
News Corp. and MySpace turned down repeated requests for interviews. MySpace said in an e-mailed statement that its users' safety is of "paramount importance" and that it is continuing to work with parents and authorities on improving safety.
Emerging in 2004, MySpace's network of sites now ranks fourth in total U.S. audience, neck-and-neck with Google.com, but behind Yahoo and Microsoft, according Web measurement firm Hitwise. From its beginning, it ranked very close to AOL but of late has taken over AOL's spot.
The growth of MySpace in speed and scale has outpaced previous Internet phenomena such as music-sharing site Napster and pioneering social networking site Friendster.
The MySpace network has nearly 50 percent of the market share of all U.S. Web community sites -- 10 times more than any single rival site, including Yahoo, Facebook, Craigslist and LiveJournal, according to Hitwise.
TEEN CRAZE, PARENTAL CRISIS
Authorities in Santa Cruz, California, last week arrested 26-year-old Nathan Contos for felony child molestation after he met a 14-year-old high-school student on MySpace.
Contos claimed he was 15, 17 and 26 years old in online conversations that led to several meetings, according to a spokesman for the Santa Cruz County sheriff's office.
Blumenthal said the arrest underscored a key vulnerability in policing Internet communities, especially those targeting young people: verifying a user's age is extremely difficult.
He said he expects to reach a settlement "in the next couple of weeks" under which MySpace agrees to tighten access to the site, with an aim for a better age verification system.
"My hope is that what we do here will serve as a model for others," Blumenthal said.
MySpace, which has operated below the radar of many Internet industry analysts to preserve its "cool factor," said in a statement that its users have to be at least 14 years old and are required to fill out an online form that includes their date of birth.
From there, MySpace employs an automated search engine, along with a team that they claim sifts through "tens of millions" of profiles to identify potential minors.
The company said it employs a third of its 175-person work force to "process customer care requests." "About sixty of our employees do nothing but handle customer service; verifying who is who and what is going on around the clock," MySpace said.
MySpace also clearly advises members on its Web site to avoid posting too much personal information.
But many youngsters include photos, names, addressees and the names of schools and hangouts. More than one picture and name/age is false.
A hi-tech executive, whose 14-year-old daughter attends a high school in Seattle that now bars its teenage students from having a MySpace site, said he was unaware that his daughter was on the site until alerted by a friend of his, that several students in that school had been molested by guys they 'knew' (or thought they knew!) from MySpace; _then_ he found out _his_ daughter was hanging out there as well. When he confronted his daughter with what he found out about the site, he said she just laughed, and claimed "all the kids at school know that is the place to go to if you want to meet 'sophisticated men', we all have web cams; they all try to get us to 'show them our cams'. The school says stay away from that site, and some do, but most go on there anyway, using false names and ages and pictures. "
"These kids have opened themselves up to the world and yet isolated themselves at the same time," Web Wise Kids' Nelson said of how individual MySpace sites can be viewed by anyone "passing by," but they restrict the ability to post to friends who must invited in.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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