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Facebook probed on safety claims

All 50 states are looking into whether social sites protect young users from sexual predators.

September 25, 2007|Jessica Guynn and Joseph Menn | Times staff writers

san francisco -- A year after goading MySpace into overhauling its safety practices, state law enforcement officials on Monday stepped up their criticism of how social network Facebook Inc. protects its young users from sexual predators.

New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo said his office was investigating whether Facebook made false claims about the safety of its social network.

He issued subpoenas to gather more information about the Palo Alto company's policies and procedures after an undercover investigation found that Facebook was slow to respond to complaints about sexual solicitations of underage users.

"It does not have the right to represent that its site is safe and that it promptly responds to complaints when such statements are not accurate," Cuomo said.

Safety concerns could dog Facebook, which has soared to become the No. 2 social networking site, much as they have its bigger rival, MySpace. Facebook has become one of Silicon Valley's hottest companies, poaching employees from such powerhouses as Google Inc. and attracting advertisers eager to get their messages in front of the site's 42 million registered users.

Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker released a statement saying the privately held company took the concerns "very seriously" and pledged to work with Cuomo and other state attorneys general.

One prominent Internet safety advocate came to Facebook's defense. Parry Aftab, a New York lawyer who is executive director of Wired Safety.org, said Facebook had been a model corporate citizen since she began working with the site in 2005.

Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly, a legal veteran in the privacy arena, is "outrageously responsive" to complaints from watchdog groups and ahead of the curve in setting up procedures and training monitors, Aftab said.

Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper said Monday that they were heading a joint investigation by all 50 states into sexual predators on social networking websites. Both men met with Facebook last week.

"Facebook has a long way to go before we are satisfied," Blumenthal said.

Attorneys general from a growing number of states are pushing for state and federal laws to require social networking sites to verify ages and identities or to get parental consent before allowing underage users to join.

A spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said investigators routinely conducted undercover sting operations to catch sexual predators, but he would not say whether his office was scrutinizing the safety procedures of Facebook or other social networking sites.

Facebook used to cater exclusively to college students but last year opened its site to the general public. Its traffic soared to 19.2 million visitors in August -- a 117% jump from 8.9 million a year earlier, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The growth rate for those ages 12 to 17 has been even higher, at 122%.

To conduct its sting, Cuomo's office set up several Facebook accounts, posing as 12- to 14-year-old users. Within days, the fake users had received several sexual solicitations from adults. Cuomo says the company ignored complaints about the inappropriate contact.

For example, on Aug. 30 an investigator created a fake profile for a 14-year-old high school student from New York. A week later, she received a message from a 24-year-old man asking for nude photographs.

Posing as the student's mother, an investigator lodged a complaint with Facebook. Facebook sent an automated response pledging to review the situation but has yet to remove the man's profile or take other action, Cuomo's office said.

"As our service continues to grow so does our responsibility to our users to empower them with the tools necessary to communicate efficiently and safely," Facebook's Barker said. "We strive to uphold our high standards for privacy on Facebook and are constantly working on processes and technologies that will further improve safety and user control on the site."

MySpace was first to face the political backlash against social networking sites. To blunt criticism that MySpace had become an unsafe place for young people, corporate parent News Corp. hired a former federal prosecutor as chief security officer, changed some of MySpace's security policies and ran public service announcements on its TV stations and websites.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against MySpace, accusing it of negligence and having a defective product. One such case was thrown out by a federal judge in Austin, Texas, and is now on appeal. At least five cases are continuing in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

"At the center of things, plaintiffs are complaining that MySpace has set up its site in a way that makes it easy for people to be what they are not," said Houston attorney Jason Itkin, who represents families suing in L.A. "As a result, the most dangerous customers of MySpace have access to the most vulnerable."

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