Stung by attention from pedophiles and the media, online community site MySpace said Tuesday that Hemanshu Nigam will be joining the company as chief security officer on May 1. Nigam is currently the director of consumer security outreach and child-safe computing at Microsoft.
The move follows a number of high-profile cases highlighting online dangers to children, some of which involved MySpace.com. In early March, the FBI arrested two men in unrelated cases that prosecutors say represent the first federal sexual assault charges related to the use of the social networking site. Other cases involved the creation of a fake MySpace profile that led to the arrest of an alleged sexual predator, and online threats of violence posted on MySpace against a middle school student.
Nigam appears to have the requisite experience to deal with such problems: Prior to positions at Microsoft and the Motion Picture Association of America, he served as a trial attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice, where he specialized in cases involving child pornography, child predators, child trafficking, and computer crime.
Nigam's appointment comes one day after a related announcement involving MySpace. On Monday, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Advertising Council, and the News Corporation (parent company of Fox Interactive Media and MySpace) said they plan to produce a series of public service announcements to promote online safety.
MySpace maintains that it has been looking out for its predominantly young patrons since the site's inception, with special privacy protections for younger teens, image and link review processes, and law enforcement outreach. Ninety of the company's 300 personnel are assigned to deal with customer service and privacy issues. MySpace claims it has deleted some 250,000 underage profiles since the site launched in July 2003.
Evidently, its initial efforts leave room for refinement.
Congress has long been concerned about online safety, both because there are real risks on the Internet and because proposing child protection legislation looks good to most constituents regardless of the quality of the bill.
Last week, a congressional panel heard testimony on the sexual exploitation of children. Justin Berry, 19, told the panel of his five years, beginning at age 13, as the operator of his own pornographic Web site and as the victim of child predators.
Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, testified that his organization's records showed a "significant and steady increase" in reports of the victimization of children in recent years.
Cautioning against hysteria about the Internet as a vector of attack upon children, Parry Aftab, the executive director of WiredSafety.org, said during the hearing that it's not clear whether crimes against children online are growing, noting that crime reporting forms don't collect information about the role of the Internet in child exploitation crimes.
What is clear is that work needs to be done to better protect children online. MySpace deserves credit at least for making an effort.
The same can't be said of all companies: "Entire infrastructures have emerged to sustain this business, including both witting and unwitting corporate participants," New York Times writer Kurt Eichenwald testified. "Wish lists with companies like Amazon.com and American Eagle Outfitters--a wonderful convenience for gift giving--have become mechanisms for seducing children. Online payment systems, such as PayPal.com, have been used to facilitate transfers of cash. Communications programs from companies like AOL and Yahoo are used both for direct conversations between predators and children, and for the transmission of illegal video images."
And that's to say nothing of the credit card processing companies, the hosting companies, or the online marketing companies that facilitate child exploitation, guiltily or gleefully, for a quick buck.