My colleague, Christopher Dawson, recently posted MySpace and the end of civilization in order to point out ...
" ... that MySpace is not the problem. We need to recognize the rapidly growing number of ways in which kids are able to be offensive, dangerous, inappropriate, and endanger themselves. We as educators need to address this head on, not by condemning the sites, but by intensive, technology-focused education ... "
I agree with Chris that as IT specialists in an educational setting, we need to do more to help our students (and faculty) recognize not just the incredible potential of these tools but also the risks associated with their careless use. We wouldn't dream of putting our 16-year-old kids behind the wheel of a car without adequate training but our educators as well as our parents are often as ill-informed as our students about the hazards of casually putting ourselves and our personal lives on display on the Internet for (quite literally) the world to see.
I have to disagree with Chris regarding MySpace, however. Parental indignation goes with being a teenager so we have to put the content issues aside -- the overriding concerns have to be the personal safety of our children! While they might say that they are only serving the interests of our children, MySpace is a far greater threat to our children's' well-being than that of run-of-the-mill web hosting service. Why? Because these sites are not only pandering to our children but also to the predators who pursue them!
Think I am over-reacting? Go to http://www.MySpace.com and select 'browse' ...
But isn't traditional web hosting just as risky?
The national ISPs provide fees-paying customers a secure environment whereby a "primary account" has complete control over secondary accounts. Privacy is the default state and settings are available for more or less restrictive controls. Of course, our children don't like this oversight but parents have a moral obligation to take part in such oversight and the government has (rightly) assumed an ethical obligation to protect minors from unscrupulous individuals (and companies) who would exploit them. They charge a fee and they provide access, and a considerable level of protection, for that fee.
What about those 'free' web-hosting services?
Well, you get what you pay for. Some are better than others about protecting their members but, because they are 'free' they will attract not only those looking for 'free' or 'unmonitored' web space but also unsavory characters who are looking for anonymity -- especially from the authorities -- people such as hackers, spammers, and those running phishing schemes (that's another topic -- see my blog Who's phishing for your students?) Still, even in this 'den of thieves', the pedophile cannot easily search through page upon page of pictures of young girls (or boys), click on a picture, and go straight to a teenager's web page. Like Swiss banks, these sites flourish because they protect anonymity.
The bottom line is that with a traditional web-hosting service, the owner of the web page in question has to publish their page in a directory and share with their friends the URL to their site for them to get much attention. No matter how "... offensive, dangerous, inappropriate, ..." a teenager's web page might be, in this setting, the risks are relatively low because the teenager remains largely in control of who knows their real name and the URL of their web space.
So what about in an educational setting?
When it comes to minors, the law is so restrictive that I cannot even find out the last names of my son's classmates in elementary school unless they volunteer that information to my son or to me. Not even parental contact information is available to another child's parents.
In a college or university setting, where virtually all students are over 18, privacy is still protected by law. The university cannot give out personal information about a student (even to their parents) without their explicit consent. Further, in this setting, the student is free from virtually all oversight. Principles of academic freedom preclude any institutional restrictions on web page content. (At least at public institutions.)
Students should be expected to sign a "rights and responsibilities" agreement with their university but only under conditions of a search warrant should the contents of a student's personal files space or web space be shared with the authorities. There is plenty of protection for the student along with considerable rights of self-expression and an expectation of personal responsibility.
This level of personal protection (and personal responsibility) is simply not so pervasive in the private sector. Under current US law, acquiescence often implies consent.
Final thoughts about MySpace
This lack of member privacy 'by default' is their lure. It lures not only their target audience -- teenagers (who desperately want to be noticed) and advertisers (where the money is .. ALWAYS follow the money) -- but it also lures predators. Put crudely, one stop shopping for the most vulnerable among us.
In a recent blog (MySpace: We're not so bad - really!), a MySpace spokesperson, Dani Dudeck, was quoted that "Nearly 80 percent of our members are 18 years or older, ..." -- before I visited the site for myself, I had to ask myself what was the difference between a young adult posting to MySpace.com and one posting to the web-space at their university, or for that matter, at their ISPs web hosting site. Well, once I saw the MySpace web site, I knew the answer to that -- there is no similarity whatsoever!
But what about those over 18? If they are old enough to vote and old enough to enter into a contract, then they should be held responsible for their decisions to post to MySpace. Right?
Unfortunately, there is little that we can do to make MySpace do a better job of protecting our children. Even if the authorities in one jurisdiction mandate that they change their privacy policies, they can move, almost effortlessly, to another jurisdiction and go about their business.
Unless we as IT educators provide our students (whether minors or not) with the knowledge to make safe (if not entirely appropriate) choices, and the tools of self-expression they are seeking (school-sponsored web-pages for students), they will continue to be attracted to places like MySpace and they will continue to be exploited by predators of all kinds.