In response to a spate of issues involving sexual predators using MySpace, Facebook began promoting itself as a safe online environment for children. To test their claims, investigators from the New York Attorney General’s office posed as teenagers and within a matter of days after posting their profiles on Facebook, had received numerous sexually suggestive messages from adults. Their complaints, registered using Facebook’s online form, went unanswered for weeks.

As a result of their investigation, New York state prosecutors accused Facebook of false advertising and the New York Times reports that yesterday, Facebook was ordered to immediately post stronger warnings about the risks to children using the site and to provide a quicker response to thousands of complaints daily about inappropriate sexual messages.

The changes are part of a settlement with the New York attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, whose office last month announced that it had been investigating whether the Web site misled users by promoting itself as a place where minors were safe from sexual predators.

Mr. Cuomo said the settlement would serve as a “new model” under which law enforcement and Internet companies could work together to protect children and recognize that they share responsibility to police illegal activity online.
By using consumer-protection laws to tackle the thorny problem of Internet safety, Mr. Cuomo appears to be building on the tactics of his predecessor, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who used state laws to prosecute fraud on Wall Street.

“Any site where you are attracting young people, you must assume you are simultaneously attracting those who would prey on young people,” Mr. Cuomo said in an interview. “Whether you are a shoe company or you’re an Internet company, consumer protection laws apply.”

Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, stood beside Mr. Cuomo to announce the deal and called the settlement part of the company’s effort to grow while maintaining users’ sense of safety and community. “We actually think we’ll end up attracting more people” because of the new measures, he said.

The settlement also requires Facebook to hire an independent company to track its responses to complaints and to report twice a year to Facebook and the attorney general.

In an earlier post, I expressed concern about Facebook’s default “wide-open” privacy settings and their announcement that profiles would be made available to third parties and eventually over the Internet using an automatic opt-in model. I complained to Facebook about this practice and my particular concern about the risks to minors. While their response was timely, coming within a few days of my original complaint, it completely skirted my concerns about using a negative opt-out, as well as the issue of putting children at risk:

We appreciate your feedback and will take it into consideration moving forward. Please keep in mind that a public search listing is simply a basic search result that allows people to know that you have a Facebook profile even if they do not yet use the site. Your public search listing will only be available if you allow “Everyone” to search for you on Facebook and have the “Allow anyone to see my public search listing” checkbox toggled on. You can adjust these settings from the Search section of the Privacy page.

Also note that people who do not yet use Facebook will not be able to interact with you or view your full information without registering with the site. Your public search listing will not affect any of your normal Search privacy settings. A non-Facebook user viewing your result would see the same search result if they registered with the site.

Your public search listing will also eventually appear in search engine indexes, making it even easier for your friends to connect with you. To change this option, please go to the Search section of the Privacy page and deselect the option to “Allow my public listing to be indexed by external search engines.”

By more efficiently connecting people, we hope that we can make your experience more meaningful on the site. Let me know if you have any further questions.

Thanks for contacting Facebook,

Kristjan
Customer Support Representative
Facebook

If Facebook truly cared about their users’ privacy, and particularly the privacy of minors, their user profiles would default to allow maximum privacy, allowing users to choose to opt in to make their profiles available for searching on the Web. In light of these kinds of policies and their response to valid privacy concerns, it’s encouraging to see the privacy practices of social-networking sites like Facebook coming under closer scrutiny, particularly with respect to the safety of children.