NEW YORK Popular online teen hangout MySpace and 49 U.S. state attorneys general said on Monday they had agreed on a broad set of guidelines for protecting youths on the Internet.
MySpace, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, agreed to take further steps to ensure safety, including developing an e-mail registry that would allow parents to prohibit their children from creating an online profile for the network, according to the attorneys general.
"This is a great first step toward protecting children and ending the era of the Wild West on the Internet," Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann said at a news conference in Manhattan announcing the agreement.
Home to 110 million users globally, MySpace will also make the default profile setting for 16 and 17-year-olds on its site "private" so they can only be contacted by people they know, making it harder for sexual predators to find them.
MySpace has come under state legal scrutiny in the last two years after some youth members fell prey to adult predators posing as minors.
Dann and other attorneys general praised MySpace for entering the agreement, but said the state officials could decide to pursue further action, including lawsuits if MySpace and other social networking sites do not continue to address their concerns.
"We've been pushing legislation in states across the country ... we've explored litigation," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. "We can still take those actions if we feel it's necessary."
The attorneys general said that a core dispute in their discussions with MySpace surrounded whether there is online identity verification technology available to protect young users, something the state officials said they believe is feasible. A task force will report back and issue a report with its findings on the technology at the end of 2008.
MySpace said the general industry guidelines include policies it has already incorporated, such as reviewing images and video uploaded to their sites and ensuring that profiles of the youngest teens on its site are kept private.
"This is an industry-wide challenge and we must all work together to create a safer Internet," MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement.
The agreement is significant because MySpace agreed to changes without any court action, said James Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine and director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School. Tierney was not involved in negotiating the agreement.
"It's an interesting way now for the attorneys general to proceed -- nobody has been sued and there was really no threat of a lawsuit though they didn't take it off the table," he said. "I think this could be a real template for governmental action in not just the technology area, but other areas as well."
The attorneys generals said they have been in long-running discussions with MySpace. They said they saw a clear shift at MySpace toward working more closely with state officials after News Corp bought the company for $580 million in 2005.
The agreement also calls for MySpace to hire an independent examiner for two years to monitor how the site handles consumer complaints.
In October, MySpace's smaller rival Facebook and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo agreed to settle a child safety probe. The social network promised to begin addressing within 24 hours any complaint about inappropriate content and allow an independent examiner to oversee how it handles the complaints.
Texas did not sign off on the MySpace agreement.
(Reporting by Martha Graybow and Michele Gershberg; Editing by Derek Caney/Andre Grenon)