Two state attorneys general say the popular networking site Facebook has "a long way to go" before they're satisfied it is adequately protecting children and young adults from sexual predators.
Earlier this week, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed Facebook documents and revealed that his office has been conducting an undercover investigation of Facebook's security procedures.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper have been conducting a 50-state investigation into Facebook, which may become the target of a bidding war between Microsoft and Google. Facebook has stolen much of the limelight from Rupert Murdoch's MySpace, which has instituted a new database method of tracking sexual predators and blocking them from the site.
"This step complements and advances our common effort to protect children from predators, as part of our multi-state investigation into Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites," Blumenthal said "We are negotiating with Facebook -- including a productive, face-to-face meeting with Facebook representatives last week in my Hartford office.
"Facebook has a long way to go before we are satisfied," Blumenthal said.
"We presented to them some of the more graphic and unacceptable material found on portions of their site, but also design aspects that must be changed to protect minors against predators. We will continue to consider all options, including possible legal action, to assure that Facebook and other social networking web sites better protect children from sexual predators and adult material," Blumenthal added.
"The bottom line is that we must find the best way to make sure parents have the tools they need to protect their children when they're on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace," said Cooper, who also met with Facebook last week.
New York probe
The New York probe has involved the use of undercover investigators posing as underage girls. Cuomo said the agents were repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators on Facebook and could easily access a wide range of pornographic images and videos,
Cuomo also alleges that there are significant defects in the sites safety controls and the companys response to complaints - deficiencies that stand in contrast to the reassuring statements made on the website and by company officials.
My office is concerned that Facebook's promise of a safe website is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints, Cuomo said. Parents have a right to know what their children will encounter on a website that is aggressively marketed as safe.
Cuomo said his team set up several undercover Facebook profiles representing users between twelve and fourteen years old. Consistent with its current open policy, Facebook did not require verification of a high school email address or any other identifying information in order to register the account.
Within days of opening these accounts, the investigators received numerous sexual solicitations from adults sent to several of the underage profiles, including:
• u look too hot....... can i c u online (webcam)? im avl at . . .
• i'd love to get off on cam for you hun ; P
• do you like sex?
• if u want call me [number deleted] or u can give me ur number?
• call me if u want to do sex with me [number deleted] ok
Underage profiles set up by the investigators received several other solicitations of a more graphic nature.
When the undercover investigators lodged complaints with Facebook regarding the inappropriate - and illegal - solicitation of the underage users, Facebook in many instances ignored the complaints and took no action against the reported sexual predators, Cuomo said.
The investigators also lodged several complaints with Facebook about inappropriate content or communications on the website. In response, Facebook took down many inappropriate images within a week of receiving the complaints, Cuomo reported.
"On the other hand, other complaints reporting user groups that hosted hardcore pornography were ignored by Facebook, and the content remains available to all users - including underage users - to this day," he said.
"Perhaps most alarmingly, Facebook ignored several - and repeated - complaints from our undercover investigators concerning persons who made inappropriate sexual advances to underage users," Cuomo said.
For instance, on August 30, an investigator created a profile for a 14-year-old female high school student from New York. Approximately a week later, she received a Facebook message from a 24-year-old man, asking do you have any nude pics?
To date, however, Facebook has taken no further action, and the 24-year olds profile is still available on the Facebook site, Cuomo said.
In subpoenaing the company, Cuomo has asked for complaints received by Facebook regarding inappropriate solicitation of underage users and inappropriate content on the site, as well as any responses by the website. The subpoena also calls for all Facebook policies on user safety and all representations made to consumers about the safety of the site.
Online publishers like social networking sites because users esssentially provide free content. Also, users tend to stay on the sites for longer periods of time than other types of sites, enabling publishers to display more ads per visit.
Microsoft has been widely reported to be negotiating for up to five per cent of Facebook for as much as $500 million. Google is also reported to be interested in acquiring a piece of the fast-growing online social network company.