For the record, Richard Wistocki is not a 14-year-old girl. He’s a 41-year-old detective with the Naperville (Ill.) Police Department’s Computer Crimes Unit, but he poses as a female teen, using the name “Sierra,” on social networking site Facebook. What he’s found there, Wistocki says, suggests Facebook isn’t doing all it can to ensure it protects minors from harm.
Case in point: On Facebook, “Sierra” is able to make friends with users of any age and receives invitations to join such groups as “I’m Sexually Inappropriate with My Friends,” Wistocki says. The virtual teen is able to participate in the group’s online activities, such as message sharing, and pore over images—some of them pornographic—posted by its members.
Wistocki’s underage alter-ego on competing network MySpace, by contrast, cannot search adults’ profiles, and any efforts to communicate with adult members are blocked. “Facebook does not have the monitoring that MySpace has,” says Wistocki, who’s also a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force run by the Justice Dept. “It’s not controlled or as law-enforcement friendly.”
Wistocki is one of a growing number of advocates who urge Facebook to make its site safer for kids, arguing that when it comes to safety, Facebook would do well to take a page from News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace. On Sept. 24, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo informed Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg of an ongoing investigation of the site’s safety and security measures. Among the findings: Investigators posing as underage users had been solicited by strangers and had access to pornographic content.
The heightened safety risk, experts say, is tied to the surge in growth since September, 2006, when Facebook flung open its doors (BusinessWeek.com, 9/12/06) to all users, morphing from a site tailored mostly to college kids and high school students, and more recently, when the company gave outside developers more leeway in creating tools available to Facebook users. Facebook has 34 million unique visitors, 5 million of them under 18, according to comScore Media Metrix (SCOR). Cuomo’s office, in a statement, outlined concerns that “in Facebook’s efforts to grow, the company may be giving a lower priority to the safety and welfare of its users, and in particular, underage users.”
Hand-wringing over kids’ online safety is nothing new for MySpace, itself the target of allegations of predatory behavior by adults toward minors. The difference, child advocates say, is that MySpace has aggressively begun tightening protections. Under Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace has developed various safety teams (BusinessWeek.com, 1/24/07) with responsibilities including image review and handling complaints filed by users about inappropriate content or behavior. “In the past year, MySpace has become more proactive in seeking solutions to protect its users, whereas Facebook, which started as a safer environment, seems to have loosened some of their policies and practices,” says Donna Rice Hughes, president and chairman of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit organization that focuses on online safety. “They’ve gone in the opposite direction.”
Hughes points out that MySpace does not allow profiles of 14- and 15-year-olds to be searched on the site, a practice that started last year. Facebook allows all members’ profiles to be searched, both on the site and on Google (GOOG), except when the users opt out. MySpace has developed a team that previews all uploaded material to verify that it is not pornographic, whereas Facebook does not practice image review, according to Hughes.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to detail the company’s safety practices, but said in a statement, “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.” On its site, Facebook recommends that children ages 13 to 18 “ask their parents for permission before sending any information about themselves to anyone over the Internet.” Users also can restrict access to their Facebook profiles by non-“friends.” Other protections include a stipulation that only current high school students can join high school networks. Facebook also has a chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, though it doesn’t disclose Kelly’s responsibilities.
Such measures are not stringent enough, says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has alleged the site allows sex offenders to register profiles. “Facebook has a long way to go before we are satisfied,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “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.”
For its part, MySpace works with Enough Is Enough to produce educational literature and forums in online safety to parents and kids. MySpace also works with law enforcement to crack down on cyberpredators. In December, 2006, MySpace contracted Sentinel Tech Holding, a provider of online identity verification, to create a database of e-mails and physical descriptions of more than 500,000 registered sex offenders. The database is used to screen profiles on social networks, and matches are taken down. MySpace reportedly removed 29,000 profiles as a result of the technology. Facebook, which does not currently use the database, “grew incredibly rapidly, and they weren’t ready for the security problems that were going to hit them,” says Sentinel Tech CEO John Cardillo. “It’s a growing pain. It’s something that happens when you become successful.”
To cope with those pains, Facebook needs to overhaul its security, starting by appointing someone to lead the way to a safer site, Hughes says. The company ought to have its own staff devoted to taking down inappropriate content and providing a better response when children or parents report improper behavior.
Until then, safety on Facebook begins with users like Alana Morales, a 14-year-old high school student who says she spends about an hour on the site each day. She takes steps to protect herself by only accepting requests from people she knows from school. “Just being on the computer, you’re not safe,” she says. “Someone can IM you, and you don’t know if they are who they say they are.”