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MySpace's Next Big Privacy Idea

Social-networking giant MySpace plans to offer free software enabling parents to keep tabs on their children's online identities.

Code-named Zephyr, the software tracks the name, age and location that children are using on MySpace. It also tracks and stores any changes to the data.

The information Zephyr provides is already available to anyone online, but children often change their names and ages, making it difficult for parents to locate young users. With the software, parents can determine whether their kids have profiles and validate the age listed in it, Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer of MySpace, said in a statement.

But the application won't allow parents to read their child's e-mails or view their profiles, and children would be alerted that others can see the information. The software will be prominent on computers, and teens will be told when entering the site that parents have limited access to profiles.

MySpace, which has an estimated 135 million users, said much of the site's safety features are age-based and depend on people providing their true age.

The site expects to offer the software by this summer.

"This really is an age-verification tool," Yankee Group analyst Jill Aldort told internetnews.com. The software puts the onus for protecting children back on parents.

"It's a fantastic tool for engaged parents" to monitor their child's online behavior, John Sheehan, Cybertip line manager for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. In December, MySpace demonstrated the software at the center's Washington, D.C., office.

Sheehan said the software won't be a silver bullet for online predators, but said Zephyr is part of the "arsenal of child safety tools." The group said there are ways around the software.

The organization believes the application cannot be used by predators to gain backdoor access to MySpace accounts. However, the software's usefulness depends on involved parents. The center realizes many parents are unaware of their children's online activity.

How will MySpace make the software available? "They can't very well put it on their Web site. 'Hey kids, download this software and have your parents spy on you,'" the analyst joked.

Whether the plan will spark user protest similar to what Facebook encountered last year remains to be seen. After introducing a feature alerting people when friends' profiles were updated, Facebook faced hoards of angry users who jumped into online groups and in response to the site's "creepy" and "stalker-esque" move.

Zephyr is just the latest response by MySpace to answer critics calling for tighter age-based restrictions on young users.

A group of 33 state's attorneys, led by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, threatens legal action if MySpace does not raise the age limit for members from 14 to 16 and confirm ages. The social networking site contends verifying the age of children is impractical.

The software is "a shortsighted and ineffective response to a towering danger to kids," said Blumenthal. Children can bypass the software by creating profiles from computers outside the home.

"MySpace must stop ignoring the elephant in the room and implement real age verification," Blumenthal said, adding that if it continues to resist, the coalition of 33 states will consider all options, including legal action.

Last month Blumenthal said a plan by MySpace to protect users from convicted sexual offenders was "ineffective." MySpace said it would add new staff to provide 24-hour monitoring, including matching new users against a database of 550,000 convicted offenders, internetnews.com reported at the time.

MySpace tightened access to members under 16. The site also allows users to set their profiles to private, as well as make ads more age appropriate.

It's unlikely this move will calm critics, Aldort said. "In MySpace's case, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't."