WASHINGTON - MySpace.com and other immensely popular social networking sites on the Internet were portrayed Tuesday as emerging playgrounds for sexual predators as lawmakers considered a measure to restrict their access in publicly funded schools and libraries.
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"This is the hottest issue of the day," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters after testifying before a House subcommittee examining possible new federal restrictions to protect young Internet users from pedophiles.
A bill by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., would require schools and libraries that get federal funds to limit or ban access to social networking sites that could expose minors to sexual advances from adults.
The bill, called the Deleting Online Predators Act, has drawn opposition among schools, librarians and free-speech advocates, who warn that it would have limited effect and could unintentionally block access to scores of other Web sites. Officials of the sites also say they are taking aggressive steps to protect their users.
News Corp., MySpace's parent corporation, is committed to playing a lead role in helping develop safeguards on the Internet but does not believe that the legislation "will be effective in helping reach this shared goal," Rick Lane, a News Corp. vice president, said in a statement.
But Abbott called the measure a good step in combating Internet trolling by sexual predators who try to exploit the surging popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster, Facebook and Xanga.
Abbott briefed subcommittee members on the results of his office's three-year-old Cyber Crimes Unit, in which undercover investigators posing as 13- and 14-year-old girls operate on popular Internet sites. The undercover investigations have resulted in the arrests of 84 suspected sexual offenders, including one man who was free on bail after being arrested five months earlier on a similar charge.
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"In other words, while he was out on bond awaiting trial for illegal Internet solicitation of a minor, he was back on the Internet trolling for his next victim," Abbott said.
MySpace, which had 92 million members as of Tuesday and is one of the most widely used sites on the Internet, provides a forum for posting personality profiles, photos, music, instant messages and video streams. A 14-year-old girl in Austin, Texas, sued MySpace last month for $30 million, alleging that she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old MySpace user.
MySpace did not have a representative at the hearing. But News Corp. officials have said they work regularly with law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to protect its clients. The site also provides safety tips and warns its younger users to avoid meeting anyone they don't fully know.