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MySpace

05/01/06 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Young people are facing questions about privacy that didn't exist a dozen years ago. Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a look at two Web sites that have been the subjects of recent news stories.

(GILBERT) If you're not a kid, or you don't have kids, it could be that you don't know about MySpace.com, and Facebook.com.

But you should. These two popular Web sites are raising questions about how people interact with one another, and about privacy.

MySpace is geared mainly to high school students. It's an online "community" where you create a "profile" page that's like a mini-Web site. The profile contains information that you submit -- personal information such as songs you like, what people say about you, favorite sports, hobbies, and photographs. There's also a section where you can list friends who also have MySpace profiles. You can search the MySpace database to find new "friends." There are forums where you can chat about war, politics, love, relationships, movies, TV, religion, food, and drink.

The personal descriptions can be quite revealing. Teens talk -- candidly -- about drinking, drug use, petty crime. Sometimes they even talk about serious crime. A MySpace posting supposedly led to the uncovering of a recent Kansas school shooting plot.

Facebook.com is similar. It's geared to college students. It connects people -- as the site says -- "through social networks at schools." The "network" piece is key. You can look up people at your school, see how they know each other, and find people who are taking the same classes or participating in the same activities. You can use Facebook to arrange study nights or parties.

All this may seem not much different from other Web features such as listserves, chat rooms, or dating services. But the difference is that the users of MySpace and Facebook are kids. They like to feel connected with others, even people they've never met personally, and they're willing to reveal a lot of information about themselves to make those connections. And here's an eye-popper -- many of the kids who have MySpace or Facebook accounts think that the information they post is private. That's a critical misperception. They don't realize that most things they post on the Web can be accessed by, literally, the world.

In addition to the usual "bad guys" who might trawl MySpace or Facebook are cops, college officials, and potential employers. An underage kid who's posted a photograph that shows him holding a beer becomes a target for arrest. A high school student who reveals that Penn State is actually his last choice gets rejected, even though he's qualified. An employer who reads an applicant's frank statement that she hates men as bosses gets her job application put on the "B" pile.

The Web is forcing us to think about privacy in new ways. Information about you can fly around the world to anyone. Something you post on the Web -- even the bawdy remark you wrote in jest when describing someone -- is there for everyone to see.

Perhaps privacy can no longer be learned intuitively or by circumstance. We may have to teach our kids how privacy is created and protected. Our high-tech world demands it.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.
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