Leading internet scholars at Harvard Law School will head a task force exploring the safety of users at MySpace and other popular internet hangouts, amid growing fears that youngsters have become targets of sexual predators online.

The creation of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force is part of an agreement that MySpace, a unit of News Corp., reached with all state attorneys general except Texas’s in January.

Initial participants include leading internet companies such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Time Warner Inc.’s AOL, and MySpace rival Facebook, along with internet access providers and nonprofit groups.

The task force will have a broad mandate to explore technical ways to keep children safe online–not only from sexual predators but also from online bullies and adult content.

The task force will evaluate a broad range of existing and state-of-the-art online safety technologies, including a review of identity-authentication tools to help sites enforce minimum age requirements.

Although MySpace was in charge of creating the group, naming its members, and choosing Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to run it, the task force became independent of MySpace effective Feb. 28, said John Palfrey, Berkman’s executive director.

The task force’s initial “all-hands” meeting should take place in the next few weeks, said Seth Young of the Berkman Center.

Young said the task force plans to hold a handful of meetings and produce a series of quarterly reports for the state attorneys general. In December, the task force will publish a final report with its recommendations. Although Young indicated the quarterly reports will be solely for the attorneys general, he said the group’s final report will be available to the public.

The task force meetings are likely to be closed to the public, he said, because the group will be dealing with a number of sensitive topics.

“The safety concerns posed by the internet are part and parcel of the safety concerns that arise in human interactions in the physical world,” said Berkman’s Palfrey. “These concerns are not unique to any one service or technology platform; they are shared by the companies that provide internet services and the individuals who use these services. We should work together–private firms, technologists, experts from the nonprofit world, and leaders in government–to solve online safety issues as a joint effort.”


Berkman Center for Internet and Society