Facebook Agrees to Sharpen Security Following Sting

New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo and Facebook announced Tuesday an agreement that calls for increased enforcement of safeguards aimed at protecting children and adolescents on the site from sexual predators, obscene content and harassment.

Under the terms of the settlement, Facebook will begin enforcing its safety procedures by responding to user complaints about nudity, pornography, harassment or unwelcome contact within 24 hours. It will also allow an independent safety and security examiner, approved by the New York State Attorney General, to report on Facebook’s compliance for two years.

The settlement follows a subpoena issued by the attorney general’s office less than a month ago in which Cuomo warned Facebook that it could face consumer fraud charges for failing to live up to its claims that youngsters on the site were safer from sexual predators than on most sites and that it responds promptly to concerns.

“Social networking sites, popular among young people, have quickly gained members and appeal, but also act as a magnet for those who would prey on the young,” said Cuomo. “Our agreement with Facebook offers a new model of cooperative action that balances the freedom offered bythe Internet with the necessary protections for children traveling on the information superhighway.”

Third-Party Reports

In addition to responding quickly to complaints and submitting to an outside examiner, Facebook will make a number of other changes as well. Posting the newly implemented safety procedures on its Web site is one; reporting to those who complain within 72 hours what steps have been taken to address their concerns is another.

Facebook must also provide a prominent and easily accessible hyperlink to allow users or their guardians to give feedback to the third-party examiner about Facebook’s performance in responding to complaints. The examiner will report biannually and may recommend additional safety measures concerning complaint handling, Cuomo’s office said.

Facebook is “already in the process” of making the new changes, company spokesperson Malorie Lucich told the E-Commerce Times.

New Industry Standard

“Privacy and safety have been a priority since we first built Facebook,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO. “Our agreement with Attorney General Cuomo will set new industry standards to stop abuse online. We applaud the attorney general’s leadership and are committed to working together to keep Facebook safe.”

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook says it has more than 47 million active users.

As part of its inspection of Facebook, Cuomo’s investigators posed as young teenagers and set up profiles on the site. They received online sexual advances from adults within days, Cuomo’s office said, and found widespread pornographic and obscene content.

The investigation also found that Facebook often failed to respond or was slow to respond to complaints lodged by the investigators posing as parents of underage users.

“I applaud Facebook for addressing my office’s concerns about the site’s representation that they provided a safe environment and an expeditious complaint review process,” said Cuomo. “I believe our agreement will provide additional confidence to young people and parents alike and give Facebook a competitive advantage in the marketplace for setting a new standard for safety.”

‘The Darker Side’

MySpace went through a similar process in its earlier days, and much of the current attention to safety concerns on Facebook stem from its growth and recent media attention, Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence, told the E-Commerce Times.

“On social networks and sites that attract a lot of younger audiences, with the good comes the darker side: the predators and pedophiles seeking victims,” Sterling said. “These sites facilitate communication among members and let people connect and establish relationships with young people in a way that’s not generally possible in the ‘real world.'”

Most social networking sites likely face similar problems on a smaller scale, Sterling noted, with a few possible exceptions that use stricter controls, such as Piczo, he added.

“Most sites are aware of the need to address these issues quickly and get on with it,” Sterling said. “By agreeing to these new measures, Facebook has cut out a lot of the negative P.R.”

Youthful Leadership

The relative youth of executive management at sites such as Facebook could be behind some of the safety concerns they currently face, Nancy Willard, executive director with the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and CyberBully.org, told the E-Commerce Times.

“I think Facebook is responding appropriately to the reports of concerns, but I do think part of the challenge here is that young corporate executives are running these sites,” Willard explained. “If those of us who are older look back to decisions we made in our 20s and early 30s, there’s a heck of a lot we didn’t understand at that point in time either.”

Young adults might not “figure everything out as rapidly as we might like them to, and might not understand everything about youth risk,” she noted. It’s critical, however, to “stop labeling these companies as evil and recognize that a lot of the corporative executives involved are starting to do their best.”

Looking forward, “we have to address this in a nonaccusatory, collaborative fashion,” Willard concluded, “because that’s the only way we’re going to get it done.”

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