Is Facebook Doing Enough About Perverts?

    September 26, 2007

I know, you were all shocked last month when I had to break the news to you that there were perverts on the Internet—even on the hallowed (and supposedly fenced-in) “grounds” of Facebook.

I’m sure you’re just now recovering from the shock, so I hate to have to do this to you again, but: there are still perverts on Facebook. Yes, nearly six weeks after we first brought this to the general public’s attention, Facebook hasn’t done anything to the nasty people using their network for nefarious purposes.

Okay, okay, </tongue in cheek>. That was my initial reaction when I saw the headlines today: New York Attorney General Investigating Perverts on Facebook, etc. But looking deeper, this story shouldn’t be dismissed as overcautious fuddy-duddyism.

The New York Attorney General isn’t just randomly accusing Facebook of hosting perverts; they’ve done an “undercover” (I don’t think it counts if you’re online, does it?) investigation of Facebook and its safety and privacy measures. They set up profiles for young teens and waited for the illicit material to pour in.

And pour it did. To my recollection, I’ve never seen this type of message on Facebook, and certainly haven’t received any, but the fake profiles in this investigation received graphic solicitations (which are illegal, at least in New York).

But worse, when the users complained to Facebook about the lewd messages, there was no response:

When undercover OAG 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. The OAG made these complaints to Facebook posing both as underage users as well as parents of underage users.

OAG 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 our complaints. 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.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Facebook ignored several – and repeated – complaints from our undercover investigators concerning persons who made inappropriate sexual advances to underage users. For instance, on August 30, an OAG investigator created a profile for a fourteen-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?” The investigator lodged a complaint with Facebook as the student’s mother complaining that her daughter was being solicited by older men. The next day, Facebook sent a response saying that Facebook “will review the reported material and remove anything that violates our Terms of Use.” To date, however, Facebook has taken no further action, and the 24-year old’s profile is still available on the Facebook site.

The New York Attorney General has now subpoenaed Facebook for records of similar complaints (presumably not made by 30-somethings posing as teenagers).

Obviously, privacy is a serious, key issue to Facebook. The ability to control who has access to your personal information has long been part of its appeal (even if users can be indiscriminate in giving strangers that information). But are they really taking it seriously enough?

Lately, Facebook has seemed to roll back some of its privacy measures. At the beginning of the month, they announced that personal profiles would appear in search engine results (unless you opted out). After Lisa Barone started seeing information from her Facebook profile in Bloglines yesterday, Danny Sullivan took a closer look at how private Facebook’s notification feeds really are.

Privacy was Facebook’s USP. Perhaps as they’ve become more involved in their platform, other concerns have become more salient. But if the Attorney General’s prosecution is unsuccessful, hopefully there will be one positive outcome: we’ll have lost our false sense of security on Facebook.