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Just like the Real world, MySpace.com (NWS
) needs an enforcer. The man trying to bring order to the planet's biggest social networking site is a former federal prosecutor named Hemanshu "Hemu" Nigam. He was hired a year ago to keep MySpace's largely youthful denizens safe from predatory grown-ups--and from one another. For MySpace owner, News Corp. (NWS
), patrolling the virtual streets is not simply a matter of keeping kids safe, it's also crucial if the company is to attract sufficient advertising to help boost profits. "I am humbled by the sense of responsibility," says Nigam, who spent three and a half years at the Justice Dept. helping put child molesters behind bars. "As a company, we have to forge the way for an entire industry."
Nigam's main constituency--beyond advertisers--is parents, who have fretted about two things: pedophiles who use the site to prey on their children and kids who use the Web to bully classmates. Nigam, 42, is drawing on his ties to law enforcement and his four years running Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT
) security technology unit to make the site safer. So far the efforts have won him accolades from erstwhile MySpace critics. One is Anne Collier, co-author of MySpace Unraveled, a parent's guide to social networking. Collier says MySpace is "showing a lot of corporate responsibility."
When Nigam arrived, MySpace had a real problem on its hands. Pedophiles pretending they were teenagers had been using the site to lure kids to offline rendezvous. A barrage of criticism from parents and prosecutors had politicians in Washington muttering darkly about imposing restrictions on MySpace. Clearly, getting rid of the perverts was a priority.
Today automatic privacy settings on MySpace block everyone but acknowledged friends from visiting the profiles of underage users. Interaction between minors and those over 18 is blocked unless the adults can provide the e-mail address and the full name of the youngster to whom they are sending a message. Complicated algorithms are in place to mine thousands of search terms that are commonly used by online pedophiles. And each week, says MySpace, Nigam and his team, which includes former prosecutors and police officers, delete 8,000 profiles of people who misrepresent their ages.
Nigam understood early on that he needed to reach out to his former colleagues in law enforcement. One of his shrewdest moves: using MySpace's technical expertise and reach to build a sex offender database and donate it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Launched with assistance from Sentinel Tech Holding Corp., a leader in online identity-verification technology, the database features e-mail addresses and physical descriptions for more than 500,000 registered sex offenders. Now, when police officers are looking for a sex offender, they can tap into the new database.
Nigam is using the power of MySpace to help authorities in other ways, too. His team recently tracked down a runaway teen who continued to log into her MySpace account. In another instance, a teenager blogged that she was going to kill herself. A suicide hotline called MySpace, which found her computer's location and called police. "Hemu is an innovator," says Detective Richard Wistocki of the Naperville (Ill.) Police Dept., who has worked with MySpace to arrest pedophiles. "And he's proven we can work together."
In some ways cyberbullies present a tougher challenge. While kids have been known to out gay classmates, post clips of schoolyard beatings, and even threaten teachers, their actions usually don't break the law. Nearly half of the teens polled by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) in February, said the bullying happens because the perps believe they won't get in trouble. But the impact on the victims is all too real. Last year, classmates of Olivia Gardner, a middle school student from Novato, Calif., who has epilepsy, opened an "Olivia Haters" club page on MySpace. Olivia's mother, Kathleen, is now home-schooling her.ONLINE ETIQUETTE CLASSESNigam's main weapon in the battle with the bullies is education. He has given kids, parents, teachers, and police guidelines to curb the scourge. And MySpace recently gave free space to a powerful ad from the NCPC and the Advertising Council. In it, a girl addresses her classmates. "Today I'm going to talk about Patty," she begins. And then goes on to recite a litany of insults, ending with: "Everyone hates her, even the teachers, who are supposed to like everyone. Get a life, Patty." Then comes the tagline: "If you wouldn't say it in person, why say it online?"
Of course, education only goes so far. Nigam deletes profiles of known bullies and refers some to the police. MySpace also allows users to block a bully's profile, review e-mails before they get posted on their own profiles, or simply hit the "report abuse" button available on every MySpace page. Kathleen Gardner is skeptical of these efforts because the online bullying resurfaced last month after her daughter tried switching schools. "Now that it's happened again," she says, "MySpace is not even allowed in my house."
Nigam and Gardner agree on at least one thing: the need for legislation. Nigam is pushing states to follow Virginia's lead by making classes on online etiquette mandatory in schools. He is also lobbying state and federal legislators to require convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses. New legislation would also mete out 20-year terms for people who lie about their age on the Web to solicit sex from a minor. Nigam and his team have done much in one year, but the war is far from won. By Paula Lehman, with Tom Lowry