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Whose space? Abuse and control in social networks

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

Warning: this article cites language that some readers may find offensive

Supa Sam's blog and profile on the social-networking site Xanga looks pretty innocuous at first glance. Not updated since January 2005, the blog features poor spelling and a liberal use of expletives in its detailing of the ups and downs of life as a teenage girl who is into rugby and singing (but not in public!). The profile image of a pretty blonde lying in her bedroom staring into her webcam confirms that this chick is just bored, bored, bored and looking for friends online.

Only one thing hints that things might not be as they seem. Tucked underneath the latest post, a comment dated 31 July 2006 reads: "Have fun in jail, you fucking child molesting cunt. I hope the prison inmates give you a nice welcome."

For this profile is a former online alias of Mark Bedford, aka Supalover666. The 21-year-old Canadian is alleged to have attempted to blackmail and otherwise threaten more than forty underage girls, many living far away in the southern English county of Kent, into performing sex acts via webcam. Amid astonishment in his local community, Bedford appeared in an Ottawa court on 31 July, charged with luring a child by means of a computer, extortion, and making, possessing and distributing child pornography.

Often, the victims of burglary say the knowledge that someone has intruded into their homes, possibly while they were sound asleep, is the most traumatic aspect of the crime. It is not hard to imagine, then, that Bedford's alleged victims are only now waking up from the nightmare of compulsion, secrecy and depravity that was their experience with Supalover666; and that their parents' own trauma – that these acts were perpetrated on their children in their own homes – is also just beginning.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's technology commissioning editor


Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)

"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)

"The Crown's copyright con" (July 2006)

"Amnesty's China hit-list" (July 2006)

The point of a network

Bedford's Xanga profile had little to do with his apparent crimes, which involved hacking into email addresses to get lists of his victims' friends and contacts. But it no doubt served as a backup to the false identity he had constructed online to initially convince his targets to trust him. Social-networking sites make it easy for people to lie about who they are. And while many western teenagers, much as in real life, might be tempted to boost their age – either to gain entry into sites such as MySpace (which only allow those aged 14 and over to build profiles) or to meet older, more sophisticated friends – there also are adults who will lie about their age to gain access to a younger audience.

A handful of cases of molestation and comparable incidents have occurred in the United States, in which adults have used false profiles on social-networking sites to lure teenagers into liaisons in the real world. The problem that such sites face is that it is nearly impossible to verify a minor's status online. While adults-only sites, like those devoted to gambling and pornography, can use credit cards as a proxy for establishing that a user is over 18, verifying remotely that a user is under 18 is much harder without access to school records or other highly-guarded data.

The cases have provoked outrage in the US from parents' and teachers' associations. Legislators, keen to harness the suburban vote, have been quick to react. On 26 July, the Delete Online Predators Act (Dopa), proposed by Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick, was passed in the House of Representatives by 410 votes to 15. The act would compel all recipients of state funding for computers and bandwidth ("universal service support") to filter out "commercial social networking sites" where there is a possibility that minors may gain access to obscene or harmful material, or be subject to unlawful sexual advances.

Dopa, which is likely to go to a Senate vote in early August, has its critics. Many believe that the act's concept of a social-networking site is too broad. Indeed, the definition encompasses sites which "allow users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users", and which "offer a mechanism for communication with others, such as a forum, chat room, email or instant messenger". Depending on how the Federal Communications Commission chooses to interpret it, the definition opens up the possibility of bans on almost all interactive websites – from popular forums such as Slashdot to personal blogs, and even sites like openDemocracy and the BBC.

Most recipients of universal service support are schools and libraries. Leslie Burger, the president of the American Library Association issued a statement condemning the House vote, observing: "This unnecessary and overly broad legislation will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential internet applications including instant messaging, email, wikis and blogs. Under Dopa, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the web's most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications."

But regardless of whether the law will be accurate enough to target only those sites that are perceived to be of harm to children and teenagers, in the context of the networked information age, the ban still appears misguided. For one thing, making the home the only place from which teenagers can update their MySpace pages in many cases may not have the preventative effect perceived by legislators. Not all teenagers are supervised on their computers at home, and not all parents are technically literate enough to supervise their children even if they are present. In schools and libraries, children are surrounded by information and education professionals, who can be expected to have enough of a grasp of information technologies to be able to provide guidance.

The next generation is coming of age in a networked information environment. Education about how to manage personal information, not only in the context of predatory adults but also in the wider context of privacy rights, is therefore vital. Although MySpace and sites like it are usually characterised as frivolous places, where teens swap the latest gossip on their favourite bands and compete with each other for friends and fans, it is also true that by using these spaces, teens and young adults are experiencing what the future of communications has to offer. If we truly believe in the power of networked communications to bring people together from geographically distributed and culturally disparate communities to create "long tails" of niche interests and grassroots activities, then we must stand by these technologies – and focus on educating their users in how to use them safely.


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