MySpace to provide sex offender data to state AGs

After asserting that it'd be illegal to do so, News Corp. unit agrees to provide data about registered sex offenders who use the site.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
MySpace.com unveiled a plan Monday for cooperating with requests from state attorneys general for data pertaining to registered sex offenders.

According to a statement from the company, MySpace will provide the Multi-State Attorney General Executive Committee with data from Sentinel Safe, the database of information on registered sex offenders that the company has compiled through its partnership with identity verification firm Sentinel Tech Holding. Sentinel Safe, which contains data aggregated from state registries, has been in the works since late last year and was officially deployed May 2.

The key behind the new plan, according to MySpace representatives, is efficiency. "There were more than 50 disparate sex offender registries and no way of tying them together and checking them against our user database," Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, said in an interview. So far, the software has flagged and deleted about 7,000 registered sex offenders from MySpace's user base of around 180 million profiles, according to Michael Angus, general counsel for MySpace parent company Fox Interactive Media, a subsidiary of News Corp.

"Up until now, the predators have felt like they can have a free ride (on social-networking sites), and that day is over," Angus said.

MySpace initially asserted that it was legally unable to comply with the requests set forth in a letter sent earlier this month from the attorneys general of eight states--Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The letter asking that the social-networking site provide the data, cited concerns "that sexual predators are using MySpace to lure children into face-to-face encounters and other dangerous activities."

But MySpace responded that it couldn't turn the information over due to the terms of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which technically prohibits such information from being shared without a subpoena, as well as some state privacy laws.

It appears, however, that an accord was struck late last week. Through MySpace's newly announced partnership with the attorneys general, Angus and Nigam said, the company will be able to address the federal and state laws. Company representatives emphasized that the social network had always planned to share the Sentinel Safe data with the attorneys, who could then pass the information on to law enforcement officials in their states.

Different hoops in different states
"It's simply a matter of making sure we jump through the right legal hoops," Angus said. In some states, that means civil subpoenas; in others, it means demands for investigation or other forms of court orders. "The process is really just compliance with each of the state laws, so each state has their own process that they have to follow," he said.

He added that the dialogue has been ongoing. "We have a long working history with the attorneys general, especially Richard Blumenthal (of Connecticut) and Roy Cooper (of North Carolina). We've been working with them for quite a while and they're aware that we've been developing this technology."

Harsh words came from the attorneys' offices last week. Blumenthal put out a statement saying it was "inexplicable and inexcusable" for MySpace to claim it was illegal to turn over the data, and Cooper said it was "outrageous that MySpace chooses to protect the privacy of predators over the safety of children."

A statement from Cooper on Monday confirmed that MySpace will be sharing the Sentinel Safe information with his office and those of the other attorneys general. "We're pleased to see MySpace step up to the plate and provide us with this very important information," the attorney general is quoted as saying. Cooper is also, according to the release, promoting a new law in North Carolina to require parental consent for children to join sites like MySpace and ban sex offenders from belonging to social-networking sites altogether.

Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, conveyed a similar message in a separate statement Monday. "I am pleased that MySpace has heeded our demand, now by subpoena, to provide information about convicted sex offenders and confirm steps to remove them from the site," he said. "I commend MySpace for taking this step and welcome this cooperation."

MySpace, meanwhile, has been promoting other legal strategies to combat sex offenders. The site has been vocal in recommending that states mandate that all e-mail addresses belonging to registered sex offenders be kept on record. This practice has been signed into law in Kentucky, Virginia and Arizona, MySpace representatives said, and is being introduced in 13 other states. On the federal level, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are pursuing similar legislation on the federal level.

This kind of law, Angus said, will allow MySpace to permanently block e-mail addresses that have been connected to sex offenders. "We need to criminalize their online activity," he said.

In addition, MySpace representatives said other social-networking sites will be able to license the Sentinel Safe database technology from the ID verification firm and use it to check their own membership records. Several companies, whose names were not disclosed, are apparently already in talks to do so. "We sense an urgency here," Angus said, "and the industry needs to participate in that sense of urgency."

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