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August 26, 2005
Here's our lineup for this last full week of August:
- A mom writes: Teen solicited in MySpace
- Web News Briefs: New non-email worms; Cheap high-speed access; MySpace, 'alternate reality'; Author-teen interaction; Have phone, will game; Virtual mugging; Future job security; No browser needed; Homework helpers; BitTorrent not the nemesis?; Legit 'free' file-sharing; The new 'hacking'....
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A mom writes: Teen solicited in MySpace
Sexual solicitations from strangers are a fact of life for MySpace.com bloggers. Why single out MySpace? Because it's the No. 1 site for teen social blogging (see numbers below), and "if teens are there, predators are there too," said John Shehan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Exploited Child Unit (the people who run the CyberTipline).
There's no research on this yet. But there's strong anecdotal evidence being shared in the law-enforcement community: John said MySpace came up a number of times "as a point of interest" at the internationally recognized Crimes Against Children conference he just attended in Dallas. No other teen-blogging site came up, he told me. "That's not to say this isn't happening at other blogging services, but this is the one I kept hearing about."
The reason why I spoke with John is because Karen, a subscriber and parent in California, emailed me that this had come up at her house. She contacted me to give other parents of teen bloggers a heads-up. Here's her story:
"I found a message in my [16-year-old] daughter's MySpace.com mailbox from someone saying, 'You are a doll. We should get together'," Karen wrote. "I googled the email address he left, and it turned out to be a guy who produces pornography, specializing in teenage girls. He purposely left the message in the MySpace mailbox (password-protected), rather than leaving it as a comment [or post in her blog], where anyone could see it.
"I reported this to the local police department and also to CyberTipline.com. In less than a week, I received an email from the police detective, saying he had spoken with a special agent from the FBI, and they wanted to look into this immediately." Her research, Karen later told me, turned up an East Coast news story about a girl being killed during one of this producer's photo shoots in 2004. Three weeks ago, the photographer was found guilty of killing her, Karen said.
"Even that information didn't shake my daughter up," she wrote. "Her reaction was fairly defensive, and she told me that since she didn't respond to his email, this guy would just go on to someone else, since there are a lot of girls who do a lot of worse things on the Internet." But Karen's daughter did close her MySpace account right after that incident, Karen later told me.
I asked John Shehan at the National Center how they treat reports of strangers emailing kids. "We consider these high-priority situations. Any time a child receives a solicitation, we consider that grooming, a pre-travel situation [traveling to meet a minor for sex]. That's a Level 1 priority" (the CyberTipline has four priority levels its analysts assign to reports coming in). They get a report like Karen's to law-enforcement within 24 hours, John said. "We always urge parents to make the reports" because, he told me, 10-20 other children are probably hearing from this person too. He reminded me of the statistic from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center that one in five kids receive sexual solicitations online.
I emailed Karen back to ask her about her family's policies about blogging and other online activities.
"I informed my daughter that I monitor her Internet activity randomly. The reason I started doing this is because I noticed extensive Internet use with online journals, which led to conversations with a lot of people, many of whom she didn't personally know. Also, the amount of time she spent online became excessive. And she was giving out personal information.
"I installed eBlaster (by SpectorSoft), which allows me to monitor her Internet activity with a wide choice of parameters. My philosophy is that I will only monitor the activity that I feel could lead to a dangerous situation, e.g. posting photographs, giving out personal information to strangers, etc.
"My daughter has accused me of 'stalking' her; however, as I told her, my challenge is: 'How can I allow you to have your privacy and independence and, at the same time, keep you safe? Until you are able to make better choices, I will continue to monitor your Internet activity.'
"When she became an 'older' teenager (14-15), I allowed her to talk to people online that she didn't personally know in online communities in which she shared a common interest, e.g. sports, music, etc., but she was not to give out any personal information, post photos, etc.
"At this point, I'm in the process of creating a written Internet agreement for our family, as well as installing software that will limit the time spent online, as well as limit what information that can be sent out via instant messages, journal entries, etc.
"I strongly encourage parents to spend the time to at least spot-check their teenagers' Internet activity. It will take a lot of us to put in this effort to keep our children safe. Please spread the word."
Karen's daughter is now at LiveJournal.com. "I have the same concerns about other online journals," Karen wrote. "For example, LiveJournal has a lot of 'communities' based on shared interests, which [in effect] encourages participants to talk to strangers and, even though they may start out just discussing a certain band or celebrity, they frequently end up getting into a conversation about meeting up. I have often heard my daughter talk about seeing 'that guy from MySpace' or 'that girl from LiveJournal' at a local restaurant, shopping mall, theme park, etc. - she recognizes them because of the pictures they post!"
Readers, I always appreciate hearing from you about your family's online experiences, policies, and solutions. Email me anytime via firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 27 million & counting. Two days after I published this article, the New York Times profiled MySpace, with fresh figures: The 27 million figure for current members reflects 400% growth since the beginning of this year. MySpace passed Google in the number of pages viewed/month, according to comScore MediaMetrix traffic figures the Times cites, and users spend more than three times as much time at MySpace as they do at Facebook.com, according to Nielsen/NetRatings numbers (here's my latest item on Facebook).
- Staggering valuation. MySpace's parent company Intermix is being acquired by News Corp.'s new Fox Interactive Media unit for $580 million, MarketWatch reported last month. "MySpace.com is one of the Web's fastest-growing entertainment sites with 15.5 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore Networks. That's up from 1 million in June 2004." (See also "MySpace as alternate reality" below.)
* * * *
Web News Briefs
- New non-email worms
Increasingly, instant-messagers and gamers are the victims of worms and viruses. The newest IM worm, which is multilingual and first checks what language a Windows PC is configured to use, attacks MSN Messenger users, CNET reports. IM-ers at your house should know that "when it hits an English system, the worm sends out the following message: 'haha i found your picture!'" When a PC gets infected with it (when the IM-er clicks on the link in the message), it's sent to everyone on the IM-er's buddy list. Clicking on the link downloads "malicious software that installs a backdoor and furthers the spread of the worm." For help, see "Tips from a tech-savvy dad: IM precautions." The new game worm is not widespread but points to a trend, The Register reports. Players of the fantasy role-playing game Priston Tale have had their usernames, passwords, and virtual property stolen by virus writers. Their objective is to steal virtual goods like swords in order to sell them online for real money. Other multiplayer games that have been targeted in this way include Lineage, Outwar and Legend of Mir 2, according to The Register. "Last month a group of people were arrested in South Korea over allegations that they spread password stealing programs in order to steal the resources of online gamers."
- Cheap high-speed access
The $14.95/month price tag on the new broadband Internet service just announced by Verizon and Yahoo nothing to shake a fist at. It's not the fastest DSL connection, but it's 10 times faster than dial-up, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Yahoo provides its premium email service (100 MB of storage), PC security software, video service, and "commercial-free Internet radio," the Chronicle reports. Verizon has a presence in 28 states and the District of Columbia, so this service is available to a lot of US residents (Yahoo has a similar arrangement with SBC Communications, which announced $14.95/mo. high-speed service in June.
- MySpace as 'alternate reality'
Parents of MySpace bloggers consider this: One way to think of the site is as a cross between a videogame and a shopping mall. Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal suggests that the Internet is becoming one of those immersive, massively multiplayer alternate-reality games, and he uses MySpace.com as an example. Because at MySpace, he writes, "tens of thousands of young people spend many hours a day wandering around as if in a suburban shopping mall, looking for friends, expressing opinions, acquiring trends and, in general, leading a life that at times seems to have more reality to it than the life they lead when they log off." Lee's fairly disinterested take on MySpace is revealing. It's first and foremost a social-networking site, so the participants are "stop the presses - interested in sex and attractive sexual partners," have "exhibitionist tendencies, though in a PG sort of way," rarely read (books, etc.), and mostly like to "chill." The male-to-female ratio "seems three or four to one," which means female participants get a lot of attention. Lee also says "much of MySpace is open for all to see," which means kids aren't paying much attention to protecting their privacy. The site says under-16s aren't allowed, but I hear from a lot of parents of under-16s who are blogging at MySpace - e.g., see "A [12-year-old's] dad on kids' blogs" and "Kids: Budding online spin doctors"). Here, too, is a CommonSenseMedia editorial on MySpace, which got 15.5 million unique visitors in May, according to MarketWatch.
- Author-teen interaction
It's a new marketing technique book publishers are testing: "direct cellphone contact" with favorite authors of books for teens. Examples given by USATODAY include The PrincessDiaries series and the The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. "The teen girl audience was chosen to test the program [the latest by HarperCollins] because cellphones are considered their main source of communication. Ads promoting the mobile club are running on teen sites such as thewb.com and begin this week at seventeen.com, cosmogirl.com and ellegirl.com," USATODAY reports. The ads send them to author site MegCabot.com, where they sign up to receive recorded messages from the PrincessDiaries author and up to two text messages from her a week. The venture is part of a growing use of mobile technology in the entertainment industry (to wit earlier items here this week about all types of games coming to mobiles).
- Have phone, will game
The line between console and handheld games is starting to blur, the Washington Post reports. And that'll be good for family peace, when gamers come in various sizes, from parent to tyke. Because, since just about any type of game will soon be on multiple platforms, including phones, no one will have to fight over the delivery gadget. First, the handheld types are multiplying. "There's Nokia N-Gage, a cell phone designed for playing games. There's Sony's PlayStation Portable, launched last year, which also plays digital music files and movies. In October, a new device called Gizmondo [already out in the UK] will meld all those digital entertainment options and throw in Global Positioning System technology to boot. Even Nintendo is looking for more ways to hit the portable gaming market, with a new Game Boy Micro due out this fall," according to the Post. But the "biggest new frontier" is the phone. "According to research firm IDC, cell phone games took in $345 million worldwide in 2004 and are set to make $590 million in sales this year." On those, gamers will eventually be able to plug into their fantasy-world games because "Cell-Fi" is coming, USATODAY reports. "Over the next few years, companies will start selling dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi phones" ("Wi-Fi" is wireless Internet access). Great. Gamers will be vulnerable to game worms and robots on their cellphones too!
- Virtual mugging...
...real arrest. A Chinese student in Japan used "bots" to assault and steal virtual objects from characters in the Lineage II fantasy-world game (bots look to unsuspecting gamers like real players but are tougher). He was arrested in Kanagawa Prefecture for selling the stolen virtual objects for real money in an online auction, the BBC reports. The problem is, how to prosecute? There is no virtual-property law yet. The other problem: bots, "a frequent problem in online gaming." Game publishers have "invested heavily in trying to eliminate them," the BBC says, but because they "appear in games in the same way that human players do," they're hard to detect and delete. "Complex techniques called bot traps have to be used to trick bots into revealing themselves" when they're, for example, move a little too fast for "normal" characters. "Asking direct questions or placing players in unusual situations in the game are techniques which are often used by administrators to identify bots. However, for every improvement in bot detection, the bots themselves become more complex and more difficult to spot." Here's an item I ran in June about a dispute over virtual property in China that ended in tragedy.
- Future job security...
...for computer science students is in becoming a "renaissance geek," the New York Times reports. The Times cites the example of a Virginia Tech PhD student: "Her research is spiced with anthropology, sociology, psychology, psycholinguistics - as well as observing cranky couples trade barbs in computer instant messages." All this "spice" doesn't just keep her interested; it's "crucial to future job security as advances in the Internet and low-cost computers make it easier to shift some technology jobs to nations with well-educated engineers and lower wages, like India and China," according to the Times. But that's not all - more and more students in the liberal arts are needing tech skills. They're finding they often "need to use, design and sometimes write computer programs."
- Web, yes; browser no?!
Google seems to be telling Net users they don't really need a browser. It has launched Desktop 2 with the new "Sidebar" - software that pulls news stories, photographs, weather updates, stock quotes, and other features onto a user's computer without opening a Web browser," the Los Angeles Times reports. Sidebar points to a trend. Its features and the way they work - "trying to shorten the connection between consumers and the content that interests them, as the Times put it - are a bit like "Spotlight" and "Dashboard" in Apple's "Tiger" OS X operating system and in the "Konfabulator platform" that Yahoo just acquired. At least students can have more fun taking notes on their laptops, typing on digital "stickies." Let's just hope that, in Google and Yahoo's version, advertising won't appear on those stickies. Here's the BBC on "Sidebar."
Google Talk also launched this week, offering instant-messaging and computer-to-computer voice chat, the Associated Press reports. So far Google Talk only works on Windows XP and 2000 PCs, not Macs, but users of Apple's iChat can talk with Google IM-ers, according to Good Morning Silicon Valley, and Google Talk also works with Trillian IM.
- Homework helpers
What a concept: free academic guidance on the Web and cellphones. The Associated Press gives examples, such as WebMath.com (hard to tell who's behind it, but this page sheds some light) and retired engineer Henry Fliegler, who "spends about three hours daily answering 25 or so [math] questions." Then there are fee-based services AskMeNow.com (via email and cellphones) and Google Answers. Here's some more free advice from the AP: "Services offered by universities and government agencies may be more reliable than a commercial service with little information about its operators." The Web can also help kids exercise their critical thinking, when they use it to check out who's behind a service and figure out how much they really know. For more on this, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best research (and online-safety) tool." For more homework help, check out the links at Net-mom's Nice Sites, IncredibleInternet.com, and Discovery School.
- BitTorrent: Not the nemesis?!
For media companies - especially film and TV ones - BitTorrent file-sharing is usually the enemy. This week, a real twist: "ADV Films, the largest distributor of anime in the United States, has decided to make the best of a bad situation," the New York Times reports. "To publicize its new series 'Gilgamesh' and 'Goddanar,' it is releasing promotional packages - not in stores, but via the dreaded BitTorrent." The reason: smart marketing. Giving freebies or extras - "biographical information about the characters, images and statistics of the giant robots, promotional clips and links to online reviews" - to the vast numbers of devoted anime fans to seed interest in new content is just plain efficient. It's much more efficient than conventional media marketing because anime fans share digitally over the Net, and BitTorrent sometimes has more users than the Web itself (see this 2004 graph by Net traffic-measuring firm CacheLogic; BitTorrent is gray, the Web is red). For more on what happened last week, see CNET's "When script kiddies play with fire on the Internet". For a parent's warning on the darkside of anime on the Web (certainly not all of it), see my recent feature "A mom writes: Yaoi not for kids!".
- Legit 'free' file-sharing
More evidence of innovation in digital media this week. After we heard of an anime distributor actually using BitTorrent file-sharing to promote a new series came the news of a UK-based ISP about to allow its customers to swap music files with each other, legally and at no cost above regular broadband service," The Guardian reports. The "music service provider" is called Playlouder, and it just signed a deal with SonyBMG that allows the use of Kazaa, eDonkey, etc. for sharing tunes within Playlouder's "walled garden." File-sharers won't particularly like the closed-system part, but there is some flexibility: "Because there will be no restrictions on the format in which the traded music is encoded, users will be free to transfer songs to any type of digital music player, including the market leading Apple iPod, or burn them to CD," according to The Guardian. SonyBMG, and other labels expected to follow (Playlouder already had deals with "dozens of independent labels" in the Association of Independent Music), will get a percentage of the Internet service fees. What's clear from this week's news is that there's a growing number of legal options for digital music fans. So far the work of these artists will be available: Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, George Michael, Jamiroquai, Macy Gray, Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, The Clash, Travis, Jennifer Lopez, Elvis Presley, Pink, Will Young, Outkast, Alicia Keys and Dido. Here's the BBC's coverage.
- The new 'hacking'
There was a time when the point of hacking for "bright teens" was just to prove that they could indeed hack their way in. Now it seems to be making money, the Christian Science Monitor suggests. Hackers "rent" the networks of computers they've taken over with Trojan viruses to spammers (the networks are shrinking and getting more valuable as people get smarter and protect their PCs). "That's a major reason that turf wars are emerging among hackers. Besides infiltrating computer systems, the viruses are now also designed to kill any other competing viruses in those systems," according to the Monitor, in an article that sheds unusual light on this murky scene. Last week's brief "epidemic" among media organizations (see "PC 'virus season' starts") was short-lived but scary to computer security professionals because of how fast the viruses went out after the vulnerability was discovered.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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