New Scrutiny for Facebook Over Predators
New Scrutiny for Facebook Over Predators - New York Times
By BRAD STONE
Published: July 30, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, July 29 — Facebook, the online social network, has stolen some of MySpace’s momentum with users and the news media. Now, it is being subjected to the same accusations that it does not do enough to keep sexual predators off its site.
Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, said that investigators in his state were looking into “three or more” cases of convicted sex offenders who had registered on Facebook and had “also found inappropriate images and content” on the service. The inquiry continues, he said, and state officials have contacted Facebook and asked it to remove the profiles.
“There is no question that Facebook is encountering some of the same problems that MySpace has posed,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “They should be held accountable, and we intend to do so.”
MySpace has been implicated in dozens of cases around the country in which predators used the service to contact and arrange improper meetings with minors. Some of these encounters have led to criminal charges against the offenders, and civil suits against MySpace.
Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said he was not familiar with the Connecticut investigation but that the company has received “a number” of such reports and usually takes down such profiles within 72 hours.
“We want to be a good partner to the states in attempting to address this societal problem,” Mr. Kelly said. “We’ve worked with them for quite some time now, and we look forward to continuing our fruitful partnership.”
Facebook, founded in 2004 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., has positioned itself as the safe social-networking alternative. It has generally gone to greater lengths than rivals to keep adults and under-age users apart, at first allowing only college and high school students to join the service, and then largely restricting online communication to users at the same school.
Last year, the site opened to the general public, but it still maintains various restrictions. For example, a user’s full profile is not accessible to the general online public, and the full profile of an under-18 Facebook member is not viewable by a user who is over 18, unless the two are confirmed friends on the service. But in some cases, Facebook’s younger users are vulnerable to sexual solicitations from older users, as was demonstrated last week to The New York Times by an anonymous person who described himself or herself in an e-mail message as “a concerned parent.” The evidence of this person’s activities on Facebook may give state investigators further cause for concern.
In early July, this person opened a fake account on the site, posing as a 15-year-old girl named Jerri Gelson from North Carolina. The photograph on the fake profile page is of an under-age girl whose hair conceals her face. On the profile page, Ms. Gelson — whom the “concerned parent” said was not a real person — is described as looking for “random play” and “whatever I can get.”
This person then signed up for three dozen sexually themed groups — forums of users organized around a particular topic. In the directory of groups on Facebook, under the “sexuality” category, there are now dozens of groups with sexually explicit topics, even though Facebook prohibits “obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit” material in its Content Code of Conduct policy.
The groups that were signed up for include “addicted to masturbation ... and you know if you are!”, “Facebook Swingers” and “I’m Curious About Incest.”
When the Jerri Gelson profile was linked to these groups, her name and profile photo became visible to the group’s other users, and adult men began sexually propositioning her with e-mail messages over Facebook. “I saw your profile pic and thought I should get in touch with this hot girl!” wrote one bald, goateed man from Toronto. “Like what u see?” wrote another man from Mississippi, whose profile picture featured him sitting naked on his couch.
Several other men and women who sent e-mail messages to the Jerri Gelson account also had nude pictures of themselves on their profiles.
Mr. Kelly of Facebook said the company strictly prohibits depictions of nudity on the site and groups that encourage pornography and online sexual activity. “Those people aren’t welcome on our service, and they never have been,” he said.
He also said that such images are quickly removed from Facebook, since customer service representatives monitor the site and other users are encouraged to flag inappropriate content. However, some of the explicit images sent to the Jerri Gelson account were three weeks old and are still on the site.
The person who created the Jerri Gelson page had actively joined the sex-themed groups and added some of the adults who e-mailed her to her list of confirmed friends. Mr. Kelly said, “We want to, by default, protect people, but if there’s a situation where younger users are reaching out, there’s only so much we can do.”
MySpace, a division of News Corporation, has reacted to concerns about sexual predators on its site by hiring Sentinel Tech Holding a Miami company that maintains a database of the sex-offender registries from all 50 states. State attorneys general recently announced that MySpace had deleted 29,000 profiles set up by convicted sex-offenders through such screening.
Mr. Kelly said that Facebook, which is a privately held company, was proposing a different way to identify convicted sex offenders on the service. Instead of working through Sentinel, the company has proposed building a database of names and e-mail addresses for convicted sexual offenders that could be compared to the membership rolls of Internet sites. For that approach to work, however, Facebook would have to wait until all 50 states had passed legislation requiring sex-offenders to register their e-mail addresses. Currently such legislation is signed or pending in 13 states.
Asked about that approach, Mr. Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, said, “I think there are more efficient and effective ways to do the screening.”
Mr. Blumenthal said he was taking a particular interest in Facebook because his children use the service. He said of its recent opening to a more general audience, “I have observed its mutation into a somewhat different kind of site. There are now some troubling aspects to its features and culture that were absent before.”
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