Milestone for Net safety: Hemu moves on

Hemanshu Nigam, better known as Hemu, helped MySpace weather some serious Net-safety storms since shortly after News Corp. acquired the social network site. I’m telling you this because today he launched his own company, SSP Blue, about four years to the day he became MySpace’s chief security officer. I remember that time well. It was at the height of the US’s predator panic, when…

* MySpace was still growing at a breathtaking pace (to uncomprehending adults, seeming to have come out of nowhere)
* Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” show was really taking off, with all kinds of incorrect associations with social networking being made by the news media
* State attorneys general had begun giving serious attention to social networking
* It was a mid-term election year, with more campaign speeches than usual about child protection
* The “Deleting Online Predators Act” fortunately didn’t get passed (see MIT’s Technology Review, and…
* Not comprehending this social-networking “thing” that exposed the full spectrum of (teen and, arguably, adult) adolescent behavior, (in some cases) for all the world to see, parents were pretty nervous (in fact, my ConnectSafely co-director and I were asked by our publisher to turn around a MySpace guide for parents in a month, which we couldn’t quite do but tried).

I felt for Hemu at that time – not because he was a supporter of (he wasn’t yet!), but because any human being would, knowing his every move was under close scrutiny by a public predisposed to expect the worst of MySpace. But during the past four years, he accomplished a great deal. With dozens of new user-protection features (like default privacy for teens and a toll-free number for law enforcement), projects (like co-developing a national database of registered sex offenders that MySpace donated to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), partnerships (e.g., with NCMEC), and discussions (such as the Internet Safety Technical Task Force of 2008 on which I served – see this), he got MySpace through and well past the perfect storm of 2006 (see this Business Week article of the time).

User safety and privacy need to be constantly worked on, but it’s unrealistic to think they can ever attain 100% in the fundamentally uncontrollable, living environments of the user-driven social Web. They’re an ongoing negotiation between users (the real producers of the content) and social-network “providers” (who provide, not product, but infrastructure and service around users’ instantly uploadable “product”). Privacy and safety are also a negotiation – and collaboration – among users themselves (e.g., one user can’t be 100% safe, no matter what the site does to help, if another can post or misrepresent his content somewhere else on the Web).

This is the new media reality we all face, even those of us who don’t participate in social sites (non-participants have participating friends and relatives who love and photograph them, and so the negotiation continues). Site user-security experts are charged with protecting users in that challenging set of conditions, with user expectations molded by an earlier, fading, regulated mass-media environment, when users were mere consumers.

We’ve all come a ways toward understanding this profound media shift we’re experiencing, but we have a long way to go, and Nigam’s tenure at MySpace and News Corp. was a pioneering one any way you look at it – running security at a giant, growing Web site in the social Web’s darkest phase of public opinion under a blurry microscope. In more ways than one, he and young social networkers share the same space. [See also an audio interview with Nigam at the bottom of this blog post by Larry Magid at CNET.]

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