Facebook made basic error with poor user safeguards, says lawyer

Facebook has agreed to add safeguards to protect children from sexual predators, obscene content and harassment after New York prosecutors threatened the social networking site with fraud charges for failing to live up to its own safety claims.

A technology lawyer says that Facebook has paid a high price for making a basic Web 2.0 mistake that sites like MySpace, Flickr and YouTube avoid.

Investigators working for New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo posed as young teenagers and set up profiles on Facebook. According to a statement from Cuomo's office, "they received online sexual advances from adults within days and found widespread pornographic and obscene content."

The investigators also accused Facebook of failing to respond, and at other times being slow to respond, to complaints lodged by investigators posing as parents of underage users, asking the site to take action against predators that had harassed their children.

Cuomo issued a subpoena to Facebook less than a month ago, demanding sight of certain documents. It was accompanied by a letter warning the company that "it could potentially face consumer fraud charges for failing to live up to its claims that youngsters on the website were safer from sexual predators than at most sites and that it promptly responds to concerns." Facebook had also represented itself as a “trusted environment for people to interact safely,” according to Cuomo.

Facebook's settlement of the complaint was announced at a press conference on Tuesday.

Under the terms of the settlement, Facebook agrees "to respond to and begin addressing complaints about nudity or pornography, harassment or unwelcome contact within 24 hours." It must also report to the complainant the steps it has taken to address the complaint within 72 hours where the complaint has been emailed to abuse@facebook.com.

Hyperlinks must be placed "throughout Facebook's website" for accepting complaints about nudity or pornography, harassment or unwelcome contact. An Independent Safety and Security Examiner will be appointed to report on Facebook's compliance.

Facebook must also provide "a prominent and easily accessible hyperlink" to allow a Facebook user or their parent to give feedback direct to the Examiner.

“I applaud Facebook for addressing my office’s concerns about the site’s representation that they provided a safe environment and an expeditious complaint review process,” said Cuomo. “I believe our agreement will provide additional confidence to young people and parents alike and give Facebook a competitive advantage in the marketplace for setting a new standard for safety.”

The Attorney General's statement also quoted Facebook's founder and CEO. “Privacy and safety have been a priority since we first built Facebook,” said Mark Zuckerberg. “Our agreement with Attorney General Cuomo will set new industry standards to stop abuse online."

"We applaud the Attorney General's leadership and are committed to working together to keep Facebook safe,” added Zuckerberg.

Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons and editor of OUT-LAW.COM, said that Facebook's failure to take some of these steps of its own volition was a surprise.

"Any site that relies on user-generated content, whether it's a small blog or a social networking giant, needs a prominent complaint mechanism. That doesn't just help users, it also helps to channel complaints in a way that make them manageable. I'm amazed that Facebook didn't have that already," he said. "It's even more important for a site that's targeting children as well as adults."

Facebook claims to have 47 million users. Its terms and conditions state that the site is "intended solely for users who are thirteen (13) years of age or older". The company’s Chief Privacy Officer, Chris Kelly, told reporters this week that it believes 80% of users are over 18 but that it has no firm data.

"If Facebook had had obvious complaint systems like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace it might have avoided the Attorney General's action. It's now stuck with onerous demands to address complaints within 24 hours and to report on steps taken within 72 hours. Other sites will surely fear these time limits becoming the industry standard."

In the UK, the general rule is that website operators must deal with complaints about unlawful third party material 'expeditiously'. Robertson said that there is no case law that defines how fast that should be, though. "The only legislative reference we have to a specific time limit for the removal online material is in the Terrorism Act," he said. Where police officers order a site to remove material that encourages acts of terrorism, the operator must comply within two days, according to that legislation.

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