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'Mr. Safety' keeps watch on MySpace

By Sarah D. Scalet
March 7, 2007 12:00 PM ET

The public reaction to Nigam's appointment was swift and positive. With his legal background, technology smarts and reputation as a defender of children, all his experience seemed to lead him to this point.

"We were all optimistic about MySpace's hiring of [Nigam], because we felt that they would be able to implement effective measures," says Jay Chaudhuri, special counsel to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, the cochairman of a group of 32 attorneys general who have been trying to push MySpace to improve its safety and security practices.

But now, the honeymoon is over.

"In the last six months, MySpace has certainly made some changes," Chaudhuri says, "but are they sufficient to protect children online, and do a majority of attorneys general think MySpace is a safe 'place for friends,' as they like to call it? I think the answer is no."

Pushing for change

Within weeks of Nigam's start date of May 1, 2006, MySpace was proclaiming new measures to improve safety and security. First, the company would block members who list their age as over 18 from contacting members who are 14 or 15, unless the adult knows either the young member's full name or e-mail address. (MySpace says that members must be at least 14 years old but does not verify age, which is still a point of much contention.) Second, the company would allow members of any age, and not only 14- and 15-year-olds, to set their profiles to private, making their full information available only to people within their network of "friends." Third, the company would start targeting ads based on age, to ensure that members under 18 don't see ads for tobacco or dating services and that members under 21 don't see ads for alcohol. (This targeting of ads certainly fits into a larger strategy; Eric Openshaw, national managing director of the technology, media and telecommunications group at Deloitte Consulting, says that the amount of information members provide to MySpace makes it a "marketing data gold mine" that might allow News Corp. eventually to recoup its investment.)

Other, quieter changes were made. For instance, MySpace employees noticed that some young members were listing their age as 69 (shorthand for a sexual position). Older members were then running searches for, say, 69-year-olds under four feet tall, in hopes of finding young members interested in sex. Now, members can no longer browse for people over the age of 68.

From his third-floor office at the studiously hip new digs in Beverly Hills that News Corp. built for Fox Interactive Media, Nigam takes a pragmatic approach to these types of changes. He works with his team to create what he calls an issue list. "We look at, what are hackers doing, what are predators doing?" he says. "Then we go to our engineers and say, suppose you have no worries about resources -- what can we do to solve these issues? Is there a change we can make or feature we can add?" Once they have this list in hand, they try to figure out which five or 10 things they can do to hit 80 percent of the problem, and they build the priority list from there.

This story is reprinted from CSO, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2006. All rights reserved.
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