MENLO PARK, Calif.—California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg were among the speakers at an event here on Feb. 10 that also featured panel discussions that engaged educators, students and high-tech executives about the need for a safer Internet.
Facebook, along with several of its big-name rivals including Google and Yahoo, helped sponsor the second annual "Safer Internet Day" event in the United States, which was hosted by the nonprofit group Connect Safely.
While much of the discussion was focused on child safety, Harris discussed a case her office won against the operator of a Website that displayed intimate photographs, mostly of women, that were posted without the subjects' permission.
Kevin Christopher Bollaert, the operator of the site UGotPosted.com, was found guilty on Feb. 2 of six counts of extortion and 21 counts of identity theft in a unanimous decision by a jury.
"There was a fellow we prosecuted who invited individuals to post these photos on his Website that embarrassed and violated the women," said Harris. She said in many cases the women didn't know their ex-spouse or -lover had posted the photos and didn’t find out until after co-workers and others started treating them differently. Bollaert refused requests by the women to take the photos down unless he was paid to do it. "That's called extortion," said Harris.
"Technology is changing the world right in our backyard," added Harris. "But it also affects vulnerable and voiceless people, and it's important we figure out how we make sure they stay safe and have a voice."
It was a pretty strong dose of the dark side of the Internet for the scores of high-schoolers in the packed hall, but they seemed to take it in stride. Later panel discussions focused on cyber-bullying, with the students giving explicit examples in which they or their friends were humiliated online.
"I think it's a good way to refocus and reconnect back to what matters and how innovation is ahead of ethical guidelines, especially when you think about the long-term effects of what gets posted online," Merve Lapus, senior manager of education programs at Common Sense Media, told eWEEK. "Facebook lets us post things fast, and it can go viral whether we mean it to or not, but you're not necessarily thinking about that when you hit the Like button in that split second, or share it by tweeting."
As the most popular social network with about 890 million users worldwide, Facebook has had its share of cyber-bullying cases and privacy issues to contend with, but Sandberg said the company is constantly working to protect its users.
"From the most fun selfie to the most serious post, our ability to share requires we have a safe Internet," said Sandberg. "That’s why we give you tools to report anyone who invades your privacy."
While students speaking at the event were generally upbeat in encouraging more positive behavior online, they were clear-eyed about the problems that exist today.
"We see time and time again people say things they wouldn't say in the real world but do online, and there should be the same consequences," said Rayna Achuleta, a high school student activist.
"There are a lot of programs to help and report negativity online." She specifically mentioned a site called I Can Help that is focused on deleting negative comments and personal attacks, such as calling someone ugly or stupid, online.