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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Missouri cyberbullying: Case not closed

There have been two new developments in the tragic cyberbullying case in Missouri that broke last November (see "Extreme cyberbullying"): 1) Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles are looking at charging the adult neighbor who created the imposter profile that led to the Missouri teen's suicide, the Los Angeles Times reports. "Prosecutors in Missouri said they were unable to find a statute under which to pursue a criminal case." The US Attorney's Office in L.A. believes it has jurisdiction because MySpace is based in Beverly Hills, and - creatively, the Times cites a legal experts as saying - the L.A. prosecutors are exploring charges involving federal wire fraud and cyber fraud because the woman "defrauded MySpace" by creating the imposter account, the Times cites anonymous sources as saying. The First Amendment could be a big hurdle for them, but if they're successful, the case could be groundbreaking because of all the fake profiles people create all over the social Web, for both benign and malicious reasons. 2) The other development, online vigilantism, is described in depth in the Washington Post. Wanting to avenge Megan's death, people have "combed public records online to post photos of Lori and Curt Drew along with heated messages demanding they be held accountable. Satellite images of the house were also posted, along with the Drews' address and phone numbers, and details about where each worked.... What lawmakers couldn't or wouldn't do, virtual vigilantes quickly did," the Post reports. Also at the Post, see this online discussion of the Megan Meier case between readers and Daniel J. Solove, associate law professor at George Washington University and author of "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet. Its insightful last Q&A is about virtual mobs and online shaming.

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Imposter profiles: Ongoing problem?

We don't see that much about them in the news media, but we certainly do in, and MySpace even has a dedicated email address for reporting them: CIO magazine says imposter profiles aren't going away anytime soon in "Fake Social Networking Profiles Still Big Problem, But Don't Expect Social Networking Sites to Care." Leading with the story the New York Times broke about the impersonating Facebook profile of assassinated Pakistan People's Party's leader Benazir Bhutto's son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, CIO reports that social sites tend to take a reactive approach to fixing this problem. Because social sites rely on advertising for revenue, it adds, they "don't want to make it hard for people to start pages." Until they do, it's smart to view social-networking profiles with a grain of salt. One way to check a profile's authenticity, CIO points out, is a free service called claimID. It "allows users to keep a 'link résumé' of all the sites they use and maintain. If a user found a friend's MySpace page, for instance, he could check the link with his friend's link résumé to ensure it's real."

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UK's top social sites

With Britons so keen on social networking (recent Ofcom research found 1 in 4 logged into a social site at least 23 times a month!), the UK's Computing Which? consumer magazine recently took the subject on. It tested the "10 most popular sites [in Britain] for ease of setting up and using the site, the range of features, and the way the sites protected privacy and security, including how easy it is to remove personal details," The Guardian reports. The highest mark - 79% - went to Bebo, "used predominantly by the 13-to-24-year-old age group ... for "working hard to encourage responsible networking." Next in line, respectively, were Facebook (74%), MySpace (67%), Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces (65%), and Friends Reunited (62%). "Saga Zone - aimed at the over-50s - and BBC Talk were both given a maximum five-star rating for their performance" and discussion groups, The Guardian adds, and "Flickr proved to be the best in the special-interest category, scoring five out of five for both performance and ease of use."

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

'Semi-permeable classrooms'

Educator and blogger David Jakes uses a term from his day as a biology teacher to describe how a classroom can safely be turned into a "learning community" that's neither closed nor completely open to the outside world. "I’m interested in building skills in students that will make them successful when they ultimately join wide-open learning communities. I’m teaching them how to read blog posts, how to collaboratively create content in wikis, how to comment appropriately, how to manage RSS feeds, and how to manage content resources with social bookmarking tools. I'm teaching them how to operate in a community. And I’m teaching them all about safety." I wish all my children's teachers approached technology this way!


Oz to filter Web content nationwide

The Australian government is about to implement a nationwide Internet filtering program. New laws go into affect January 20 "imposing tougher rules for companies that sell entertainment-related content on subscription internet sites and mobile phones," the Herald Sun reports. The Australian Communications and Media Authority says adults won't be affected by the restrictions, which will require Internet service providers to access "free of pornography and other inappropriate material to houses and schools," content providers to check that young people of the correct age are accessing content designated for that age, and chatrooms to get "professionally assessed to determine whether [their] 'likely content' should be restricted," the Herald Sun and Agence France Presse report. Here's an opposing view from a US-based tech policy blog. Meanwhile, the porn filter the Australian government is pinning its nationwide filtering program to has been found by British researchers to be faulty, Australian IT reports. Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory, "said the innovative blocking system CleanFeed, devised by British Internet service provider BT, could be circumvented in a number of ways." Later this week, Australian IT published an editorial saying the government's anti-porn plan needs revamping.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Socializing online, on phones in Japan

It's huge in Japan, where is the No. 1 social-networking site and the No. 2 site in general (after Yahoo), Forbes reports. But even Mixi's computer-based social networking is facing growing competition not so much from other Web social sites as from mobile-based social networking. "This year, for the first time, the number of mobile users accessing Mixi's browser-based mobile system outweighed the number of visitors who have PCs." And the phone socializers are younger than the computer-based ones, Forbes adds: "58% are under 25, compared with 43% of Mixi's PC users." Mixi's mobile competition is "Mobage-town," (Japanese shorthand for "mobile gaming town"), which doesn't even have a presence on the Web. Mobage-town users "send their avatars through a series of games, linking up with friends and competing for bragging rights. The free service has its own currency and pages where users can buy various gewgaws for their avatars." Forbes says the service claims "50% penetration among Japanese teens" and 8 million users.

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Online 'friending': Nothing that new

A commentator who used to be a "pre-Facebook teen" makes an excellent point about today's social networking: Things haven't changed much since pre-social-Web days. "Categorizing and ranking friends existed long before these social-networking sites came around," writes L.A.-based writer and editor Sara Libby in the Christian Science Monitor. "Adults baffled by the proliferation of MySpace and Facebook are confusing themselves by viewing the use of these sites as a completely new and foreign phenomenon. Kids who network with friends online aren't affecting their ability to create real, face-to-face friendships any more than typing a term paper affects their ability to address a postcard by hand. Kids are still kids. Online networking is just an updated version of collecting choice yearbook signatures or, in my case, wearing a friend's picture on a T-shirt," Sara says, referring to the "buddy shirts" of her high school years. "It became a status symbol to invite the most popular people from the team to take a buddy pic with you, then to wear that shirt around school. The cooler the people in your picture, the more impressive the shirt was." Now it's online "friending" that allows public display of teens' social status.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Teen-distributed child porn

This is a nightmare I wish we could help all children avoid: Last fall in the state of Georgia, 15 high school students aged 15-17 were identified as victims in what is basically a child-pornography distribution case. The distributors were their classmates, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported this week. In interviews with the victims, local and state law enforcement discovered that a group of male students had been sharing pornographic images of themselves and encouraging female classmates to do the same. "According to investigators, some girls were peer-pressured into taking inappropriate images of themselves and sending them to the boys. Others complied with the boys’ requests for pictures because they had crushes on the boys. Many of the girls suffered from low self-esteem or did not understand the seriousness of the situation because 'everybody is doing it.' Few realized their images were being circulated throughout the school and, in one case, traded with a suspect in the United Kingdom. In another case, one of the boys was charging students at the school $25 to view graphic images of one of the female victims. As of this writing, investigators have tracked down hundreds of images, and at least one video, involving these victims." The investigation continues - the police don't think they've identified all the victims yet - and "it is undecided at this time what criminal charges, if any, will be filed." NCMEC says investigators hope the case will spark discussion about Internet safety.

This case may not be as extreme or unusual as we'd like to think: Within 24 hours of receiving this report from the National Center, I received an email from a parent in another state. She was asking for advice because a group of teen girls she knew of were "being pressured into sending nude pictures of themselves to male classmates." I suggested she contact NCMEC (800.843.5678). [See "Self-published child porn," which I posted in mid-2004 and this similar story from India in 2005. Here's the NCMEC's report on the Georgia case.]

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Tech first aid for '08 & onward

Filtering, monitoring, and other parental-control technology can be useful items in the family Internet first-aid kit, depending on kids' ages and maturity levels. But the most effective, always-age-appropriate tools these days are information and communication - as kids' knowledge of workarounds and malicious hackers' use of social engineering grow. Ideally, parents and kids are working together to develop children's mental filters in three areas - online safety, cybercitizenship, and computer security - folding both kids' tech literacy and parents' life literacy into the discussion.

Online safety and citizenship overlap, because now, as Internet access becomes ever more available beyond the home, young people's best protections online and off are critical thinking and intelligent behavior. We all hear so much about "predators" in the news media, but a lot of the "predation" or sexual solicitation targeting teens comes from peers or young adults and a lot of it has always been called "flirting." Aggressive behavior toward others online (mean gossip, dissing, acting out, seeking out risk for its own sake, talking with people they don't know about sex) puts the aggressor at greater risk, research is now showing - at risk of being cyberbullied as well as sexually exploited (see "New approach to online-safety ed suggested"). We need to think of our children less as potential victims and more as participants in this space, calibrating our parenting and online-safety messaging to the social Web.

Please don't misunderstand: Pedophiles seek out kids online, but they can't hurt your child if he or she doesn't respond. It's the kids "looking for trouble" - those most at risk offline - who are most at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim").

So ongoing communication about the importance of thinking critically about what kids say and how they act and react online is the most vital element in the first-aid kit (household or classroom). Another need: media literacy and being smart about what they click on and download - checking out widgets before they add them, analyzing the source and value of info encountered online, asking a friend if s/he really sent a link or attachment before clicking, researching a product before buying it online, checking out someone's profile before adding him as a friend, deleting weird comments and blocking the creeps from commenting again. Parental critical thinking needs to be in the kit, too, as parents ask questions appropriate for their own children's maturity levels - whether Mom should require that she knows everyone on a child's friends list or Dad should be on that IM buddy list, whether or how much to monitor a profile, whether parents help set preferences in an application or privacy features for a social-networking profiles, etc.

Here are some basic articles to include in the kit for developing mental filters: "How social influencing works," "How to recognize grooming," "If Gandhi had a MySpace profile," and this week's "Social networkers = spin doctors." As for computer security, that's essential too, and here are 7 clearly written steps to that end from Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro. And if you feel a child is immediately at risk of victimization, contact your local police and (or 800.843.5678) at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

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Social networkers = spin doctors (hopefully)

Let's hope a growing number of young social networkers understand that, on the social Web, personal communications is pretty much public relations. In "Net users are becoming their own reputation managers," a CNET commentator provides a good reminder. What our parents shared in private diaries, letters and phone conversations and we shared in all the above plus emails, our children are sharing in (hopefully not wholly public) social-networking profiles and blogs. "This radical transparency lets more and more Internet users nurture their image, manage their privacy, stage their public appearances, and distribute carefully chosen content to their circle of online friends," writes the commentator in an upbeat way. What I'm hoping is that young social Web users whose brains are still in development (see this at the National Institute of Mental Health) are aware of this "opportunity" and that they actually have less control over what they post than this commentary or social-networking sites would have them believe (once something's posted, for example, current "close friends" who may not always be so in future can copy and later paste it harmfully in a place well beyond the author's control). The writer does point out a recent Pew/Internet finding that people are becoming more aware of their digital footprint (see this on the study). Anyway, spin "control" is becoming, if not a survival skill, essential reputation protection. [See also this Wired piece on "microcelebrity" and "Very public binge drinking."]

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