Is MySpace A Safe Space? New Social-Networking Sites Focus On Security

Security-minded sites reveal variety of privacy features, parental controls.

MySpace might own your cyberspace at the moment, but a number of new social-networking sites are popping up, each going after the phenomenon's sore spot: security.

In just two years, MySpace has become the most popular social-networking site on the Internet, with nearly 70 million members worldwide. But the site has recently been slapped with criticism following reports of pages created under false identities and illegal activity linked with personal pages

(see "Twenty Students Busted In Latest Round Of MySpace-Related Busts" and "Cops Investigating Fake MySpace Page That Defamed Minnesota Teacher").

Like many social-networking sites, MySpace doesn't verify profiles and nearly all personal information posted on its pages can be read by anyone who has Internet access and becomes a member, a process that costs nothing and takes a matter of minutes (non-members can view some parts of pages and blogs, as well). Although the site has recently taken actions to tighten security — most recently hiring expert Hemanshu Nigam and launching a series of public service announcements on TV and the Web aimed at keeping kids away from Internet predators — some parents and Web users still have reservations about the site's overall safety.

Now a pair of alternative sites, FAQQLY and Imbee.com, are launching partly in response to the call for a more secure social-networking experience. Most of their efforts are geared toward preventing users from meeting unwanted or dangerous new friends, encountering objectionable content and posting irresponsible or illegal photographs and information.

FAQQLY, which launched April 16, provides members with the option of keeping all personal pages viewable only by confirmed friends. The site's core feature is a "Personal FAQ" page where friends can get to know each other better through Q&A. Other elements that aim to strengthen existing groups of friends include a "Share" page where friends can agree to borrow and lend items from each other, and a "Helps" page where a member can post a problem and friends can offer solutions.

The site's creator, Dave Liu, says he created FAQQLY partially in response to highly publicized reports of the dangers of online social networking.

"I stopped using [MySpace] because I really don't believe that it's a safe place to be," Liu said. "Our features are positioned to help existing friends grow closer together. We want to be a place where you can feel safe and interact with your friends without feeling like someone's trying to stalk you."

The founder of Imbee.com, Jeanette Symons, also believes the perils of online networking are real, but contends that such dangers are mainly due to users revealing too much information about themselves. Her site, which will debut in June and be geared toward 8- to 14-year-old kids, will allow parents to monitor their children's blogs and remove any posts they deem potentially harmful. Daily or weekly snapshots of blog entries will be sent to parents, who also will be able to approve friends. The site will require credit card information to verify its users' identities, even though its services will be free.

"A lot of the controversy is well-founded and a lot of the controversy is paranoia," Symons said. "Should parents be concerned? Yes, but not just because they're afraid of predators."

Joshua Holmes, the founder of Christian social-networking site MyPraize, agrees, and argues that the extensive media coverage of incidents involving social-networking sites has brought undue attention to a relatively small problem.

"It's still much safer to be in a community of 65 million members on a social-networking site than it will ever be to be in the middle of Manhattan," he said.

MyPraize's safety features begin with optional profile fields, so users can exercise their own judgment as far as how much personal information they reveal. First and last names are not even required, and an additional section is in the works that will advise parents on which safety precautions are available on the site.

While these newer sites are focusing on amping up security, older sites have significant safeguards as well. Google's Orkut is invite-only, meaning individuals may only join if invited by existing members who can vouch for them. At LiveJournal, users can choose from several levels of privacy for each journal entry and photo they post: public, private, friends or even custom, which allows members to create their own privacy setting with any group of users. Profiles on Friendzy are only available to friends, and Yahoo! 360° allows users to choose who can view their personal blog and which members can send them personal messages.

Of course, the key to staying safe while exploring social-networking sites ultimately lies in the hands of the user. "What we always tell our users is you need to exercise individual judgment," Kevin Krim, LiveJournal's general manager, said. "If you wouldn't do something to someone on the sidewalk, then you shouldn't do the same thing online. It's just common sense, but it's easy to forget that."