Site’s agreement with all states except Texas pledges to protect younger users
When Kathy Frazar heard the operators of Facebook.com had promised to boost safeguards to protect younger users from online predators and shield them from inappropriate content, she was encouraged but not relieved.
The West University mother said she has no plans to stop using the parental-control software she installed to keep track of what her 14-year-old daughter does on the Web, including the wildly popular social-networking site Facebook.
Among other changes, Facebook has agreed to:
• Ensure companies offering services on its site comply with its safety and privacy guidelines.
• Keep tobacco and alcohol ads from users too young to purchase those products.
• Remove groups whose comments or images suggest they may involve incest, pedophilia, bullying or other inappropriate content.
• Send warning messages when a child is in danger of giving personal information to an adult.
• Review users’ profiles when they ask to change their age, ensuring the update is legitimate and not intended to let adults masquerade as children.
“I think that we as parents can’t rely on somebody to protect our children,” she said. “We need to be involved by monitoring their contact and what they do on the Internet.”
Founded four years ago
On Thursday, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook signed an agreement with a task force of attorneys general from the District of Columbia and all states except Texas, pledging to create and improve safety and privacy features. These efforts include tightening controls on user requests to change his or her age; restricting searches by users 18 and older to prevent them seeking out underage users; immediately severing links to pornographic Web sites; and aggressively removing content and images flagged as inappropriate.
Facebook was founded four years ago for college students, and until September 2006 users were required to have a .edu in their e-mail address. It is now open to anyone, and, with 70 million active users, it trails only MySpace.com among the Web’s largest social-networking sites, according to Internet tracking firm Comscore.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declined to sign the agreement, as he did a similar agreement in January with MySpace. Abbott claims that neither Facebook nor MySpace will “adequately protect younger users until an age-verification system is effectively developed and implemented.”
In a phone interview, Abbott called the agreement “half-baked,” and said that despite the agreement’s endorsement by other states,” it papers over the problem and leads Texans into a false sense of security that their children are safe on Facebook.”
Abbott cites case
According to Abbott, social-networking sites have access to technology that can verify the age of its users, but ” they don’t want to spend the money on it, or are afraid they will lose users.”
“They can get it done and they know it,” he said.
Abbott cited the case of James Lee Butler, a 57-year-old Texas resident accused of using MySpace to masquerade online as a 14-year-old boy. According to Texas Cyber Crimes Unit investigators, Butler established a rapport with and e-mailed child pornography to a child in Illinois until he was reported to authorities by the child’s mother. He pleaded guilty in March to possessing child pornography and was sentenced to five years in prison. He must register as a sex offender after his release.
Abbott said an age-verification program would have prevented the crime.
“Our case against James Lee Butler demonstrates why age verification is a critically important safety measure,” he said.
But Parry Aftab, an activist for protecting children from online dangers, denied that the technology exists.
And if it did, she would still be concerned.
“The last thing I want is a large database of kids that some pedophile group can hack into,” said Aftab, executive director of wiredsafety.org. “In my opinion, given what I know, I don’t think it exists. If it does, we’re going to find it.”
Facebook officials declined to comment on Texas’ abstaining from the agreement, but the company issued a statement from Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly.
“Building a safe and trusted online experience has been part of Facebook from its outset,” Kelly said.
That’s just not enough for moms like Frazar.
Every little step helps, said Frazar, but parents should not depend on Facebook to protect their children. She monitors her daughter’s online activities with a computer program that flags any inappropriate exchanges between her daughter and anyone on the Web and notifies her immediately by e-mail.
“If parents would just take the time,” said Frazar, “they would be totally shocked with what their kids would do on the Internet.”