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Cyber predators on the prowl...

As Faye3 aims to become the world's largest online Arab social network, DEAN WILLIAMS examines the age of MySpace.

When the World Wide Web began its massive move into mainstream media in 1991, it had one goal: to open the world's vast stores of information to anyone with access to a computer.

It was a gigantic vault of information, and no social or geographical barrier was going to hinder it. That was then.

Over the last 16 years the Web has succeeded in what it set out do. Never before has so much information been made available to so many, at so little cost.

But there were rumblings in this technological paradise.

The Web allowed the darker denizens that live in, as US President George W Bush called it, "the dungeons of the Internet", to make their presence felt.

From child pornography to digital stalking and identity fraud, the ether was bringing out the worst.

But it also brought out some of the brightest individuals in generations. As companies like Google, Yahoo, Amazon, MSN and Apple filled their ranks with wiz-kids, gaming giants like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo went online with a flurry of scientific trailblazing not seen since the Manhattan Project.

Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt once said: "The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had."

But the future of the Internet was waiting to be written.

Then in 2003, Tim O'Reilly, founder of the American company O'Reilly Media, put the future into words and gave it a name. He called it Web 2.0.

"Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform," he said while launching the first Web 2.0 conference in 2004.

"Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them."

Networking became the buzzword for the 21st Century É and its social connotations would reverberate.

Wikipedia (one of the children of Web 2.0) defines a social network as a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organisations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations, such as values, visions, idea, financial exchange, friends, kinship, dislike, trade, web links, sexual relations, disease transmission (epidemiology), or airline routes.

In August 2003, a company called eUniverse hired three men to oversee a Web-based social networking project: Brad Greenspan, eUniverse's founder, chairman and chief executive officer was the boss of the project and under him were the trio comprising Chris DeWolfe, Josh Berman and Tom Anderson.

The project was titled MySpace and history was in the making.

The first users of MySpace were eUniverse employees. Then on August 28, 2003, employees at eUniverse received an e-mail stating that eUniverse was launching a competition to see which employee could get the most people to sign-up to MySpace. The prize was $1,000 (BD378).

In July 2005, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation tabled a bid to buy MySpace, a website not even two years old.

The offer that was put to Mr DeWolfe, CEO of MySpace and Mr Anderson, president of MySpace: was $580 million (BD219.24m). It was accepted.

As of this month, MySpace has 180m users and is currently the most popular social networking site in the world.

Watching the rise and rise of MySpace from the sidelines was an Internet giant, Google.

Google must have felt incredibly peeved considering they had launched their social networking site in November of 2002.

The site, Orkut, was developed by a Turkish software engineer Orkut BŸyŸkkškten, who developed it as an independent project for Google.

But there was a problem with Orkut; you could only be a member if you were invited to join by another member. This gave Orkutians a misplaced sense of elitism that wasn't transforming into numbers.

It wasn't until July of 2004 that Orkut celebrated its millionth member.

But My-Space had started something: the age of the social network had arrived.

By July 15 this year, Orkut's numbers were up past 62m (62,638,127 to be exact). Orkut is currently the third-most popular social site on Web 2.0 (after MySpace and Windows Live Spaces, Microsoft's social network).

Social networking has become big business, with over half a billion users across the globe.

Talking numbers, here are just a few of the other social network sites: Hi5 (50m users); Xanga (40m); Bebo (34m); Facebook (34m and Google has tabled a bid of $2.3bn (BD867,000) for the site); Friends Reunited (12m users and bought by ITV for £150m (BD117.6m)).

Now the social network has come to the Middle East with the launch of Faye3 (in partnership with UAE-based Maktoob.com), which is Arabic for 'cool'.

"The idea behind Faye3 was to provide the Arab world with a unique platform for sharing and interacting, and to satisfy a huge need that we sensed in this market," said Faye3 founders Sohaib Thiab and Hussam Hammo.

"Knowing that there is no such service in the Arab world led us to move faster in planning and developing such a project."

Mr Thiab and Mr Hammo have already had success, with Faye3 having recently won the Queen Rania National En-trepreneurship Competition (QRNEC).

QRNEC is an annual competition that invites student teams from different universities to present a business plan for a technology-based entrepreneurial project of their choice.

Maktoob Group chief executive officer Samih Toukan is not one to let an opportunity pass him by and swiftly went into partnership with Faye3.

"At Maktoob we are investing in services that allow the user to interact and create the groups and communities they want," he said.

"Faye3 had the right platform and excellent features that will be catering for localised content, which would reflect our culture and habits more than foreign social networking sites."

Both Mr Thiab and Mr Hammo understood early on about the power of social networking sites.

"Social networking sites are amazing tools to let people communicate and share their lives with each another," said Mr Thiab.

"You can catch up with people you haven't seen since elementary school and get to know people who share your interests, allowing users to make their own communities and their own networks to suite their preferences," added Mr Hammo.

The duo is quick to promote the uniqueness of Faye3 when it comes to social sites.

They state that Faye3 is targeted at Arabs, providing them a safe environment they can use without the exposure of international social networks with content the Arab people find "inappropriate".

But social networking has its dark side.

Bahrain's Information Ministry has been urged to ban Orkut because of its misuses by people posing as others, along with claims that it is being used by people looking for and offering casual sex.

Early this month the UAE government took the decision to ban Orkut, citing that it was being used to promote pornography and other 'immoral' activity.

According to sources, the UAE government is now lining up Facebook for similar treatment.

Faye3 and Maktoob have paid heed to the banning of Orkut and have plans to self-censor, rather than run the proverbial gauntlet.

"We are against Internet censorship in principle, however, we respect and understand our traditions in the region and this is why our sites conform to the local culture and regulations more than the foreign sites," said Mr Toukan.

Users will help monitor the site, said Mr Hammo.

"We will work hard to moderate the user content, allowing people to rate the content they see and report the content they find 'inappropriate'," he said.

"We have a strong feeling towards community empowerment and letting the community determine what is and what is not appropriate.

"We have ready tools for each member to report any abuse and flag any type of content they don't feel appropriate. Similar user-based services exist in Maktoob and we are successful in moderating all types of content. The same is applied for Faye3."

One view is that sites should not be blocked or censored because of their misuse by a minority.

"Blocking a site because of a few users is ridiculous," says one avid social network user, on condition of anonymity.

"If a drunk got into a car and killed three people, would that lead to a ban on cars?

"Websites and MSN forums being used for nefarious activity in Bahrain is not something new."

When he arrived in Bahrain in 2001 he often looked up Internet forums to find "available and easy women".

"It was so easy then and it's easy now as well. You can't really stop this sort of stuff unless you shut down the Internet completely," he says.

A growing number of young teenagers are posting their profiles on sites like MySpace, Orkut and Facebook. These profiles feature pictures and often private information, such as phone numbers and home addresses.

Parent organisations have voiced their fears that such information, especially when posted by young girls, can encourage stalkers and sexual predators.

"Teen use of social networking sites has increased to an average of one hour 22 minutes per day," according to an article titled "The MySpace Generation", by Jessi Hempel and Paula Lehmanen, published late last year in Business Week. In June last year, a 14-year-old girl and her mother from Austin, Texas filed a $30m (BD11.3m) lawsuit against MySpace.com.

The girl, dubbed 'Julie Doe' in the lawsuit claimed, she met a man on MySpace who later assaulted her.

The case was later dismissed by a Federal judge.

On July 28, last year, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill requiring libraries and schools receiving certain types of federal funding to prevent unsupervised minors from using chat rooms and social networking websites, such as MySpace.

This bill, known as the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, was not brought to a vote in the United States Senate. The bill must now be reintroduced in either chamber to be voted upon again.

But preventing children from using social networking sites is harder than it may seem and it is here that parents come into play.

OnGuard Online, a website that helps parents deal with the dangers their children face in the digital age, states that parents must supervise their children when they are on the Internet.

"Talk to your kids about their online habits," said a spokeswoman from the website.

"If they use social networking sites, tell them why it's important to keep information like their name, address, phone number, and family financial information - like bank or credit card account numbers - to themselves.

"Remind them that they should not share information about other people in the family or about their friends, either."

She also says that it's important that children post only information that parents - and the children - are comfortable with others seeing and knowing.

Last year, CBS News Technology Analyst Larry Magid came across the webpage of a 15-year-old girl.

In her description the girl wrote: "Drink a 40, smoke a bowl, sex is good, life is great, we are the class of 2008."

When asked by CBS correspondent Sandra Hughes what he would make of the description if he were a sexual predator, Magid replied: "I'd target her."

The US-based Centre for Missing and Exploited Children reported that in 2006 there were more than 2,600 incidents in the US involving adults using the Internet to entice children.

Last year approximately one in seven youth online (10 to 17-years-old) received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet, says the centre.

Four per cent received an aggressive sexual solicitation - someone who asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone; or sent them offline mail, money or gifts.

Thirty-four pc had an unwanted exposure to sexual material - pictures of naked people or people having sex.

Just 27pc of the youth who encountered unwanted sexual material told a parent or guardian.

Parry Aftab, a US-based Internet lawyer and safety expert said in an interview with MSNBC that MySpace was a "one-stop shop for sexual predators and they can shop by catalogue".

"Paedophiles are using all of the social networking sites and every other anonymous Internet technology to find kids. The social networking sites are where kids are," Mr Aftab told the news service.

OnGuard Online says that the lack of privacy in social networking sites means that web pages can be seen by teachers, the police, a college admissions officer, or a potential employer.

University student Cameron Walker has felt the effects of teachers and employers monitoring social network sites firsthand.

Walker, who was a sophomore at Fisher College in Boston organised a student petition dedicated to getting a campus police guard fired and posted it on the social network Facebook.com.

"Walker wrote that the guard 'loves to antagonise students ...and needs to be eliminated'," according to a Newsweek article.

Another student informed school officials, who logged on and interpreted the comments as threatening.

Walker was expelled.

Jason Johnson was a student at the University of the Cumberlands, a Southern Baptist school in Williams-burg, Kentucky, when he created his own MySpace page.

On the page was mundane information regarding his favourite songs and films, but on it he had also stated that he was gay.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Cumberlands states that students must lead a "Christian lifestyle," which included a ban on homosexuality.

Johnson was expelled.

He later hired a lawyer and got the school to rescind the expulsion and transfer him out with his academic record intact.

Over the last year, Facebook has come under intense scrutiny from government and educational authorities, as well as law-enforcement agencies.

In February this year, 19-year-old University of Connecticut freshman Carlee Wines was killed in a hit-and-run incident.

Campus police used Facebook to link the suspected driver, Anthony P Alvino to the university.

By following leads via Facebook, police learned of the connection between Alvino and his girlfriend, Michele A Hall, a UConn student.

Alvino was charged over the hit-and-run, while Hall was charged with helping cover it up and hindering prosecution.

As the numbers signing-up for social network sites continues to rise at a phenomenal rate, there's little that can be done by webmasters to stop children from posting material that could either harm them directly (in the case of sexual predators and stalkers) or rear its head in the future (pictures and comments posted on web pages).

Mr Aftab said parents must take a proactive role in making sure their children are protected on the Internet.

"They're afraid of their kids," he said.

"They somehow think because technology is involved, they're no longer the parent. Get real. You're the parent. If you don't like it, unplug the computer.

"If they don't follow your rules, no Internet at all. If you're not the parent and if you're not going to step in, no website on earth is going to be able to help your child be safe."

US District Judge Sam Sparks who dismissed the 'Julie Doe' case against MySpace said of his decision: "If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace."

In January of this year, MySpace announced that users whose ages are set on the sign-up at over 18 could no longer be able to add users whose ages are set from 14 to 15 years as friends, unless they already know the user's full name or e-mail address.

dean@gdn.com.bh



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