N.Y. Subpoenas Facebook for User Safety Practices

N.Y. AG Cuomo, looking to crack down on social network predation, questions Facebook's security claims.

The N.Y. attorney generals office is investigating Facebook for deficiencies in the way the popular social networking site protects children from predators who lurk on the Internet.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo wrote in a letter accompanying a subpoena for documents Sept. 24 that a review conducted by his office revealed major shortfalls in the sites safety controls. Moreover, the AGs team also found the Palo Alto, Calif., companys response to complaints sorely insufficient.

Cuomos office used undercover investigators to test Facebooks safety controls and procedures. The investigators found that when they posed as underage users, they were repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators on Facebook and could easily access pornographic images and videos.

When the investigators then posed as parents of the underage users and asked the site to take action against users who had harassed their children, they found that Facebook was slow to respond, if it responded at all.

"My office is concerned that Facebooks promise of a safe Web site is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints," Cuomo said. "Parents have a right to know what their children will encounter on a Web site that is aggressively marketed as safe."

Facebook said in a statement that it takes the AGs concerns seriously and is continuing to work on processes and technologies that will improve safety and user control on the site.


Facebook leaks its own source code. Read more here.

"As our service continues to grow, so does our responsibility to our users to empower them with the tools necessary to communicate efficiently and safely," Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker said in a statement. "We are committed to working closely with all the state attorneys general to maintain a trusted environment for all Facebook users and to demonstrate the efficacy of these efforts."

To conduct the review, Cuomos office set up several undercover Facebook profiles representing users between 12 and 14 years old. As per its current policy, Facebook did not require verification of a high school e-mail address or any other identifying information to register the account.

The AGs office said the investigators who opened the accounts received numerous sexual solicitations from adults sent to several of the underage profiles.

When the investigators complained to Facebook about the illegal solicitation of the underage users, Facebook often ignored the complaints and took no action against the reported sexual predators, Cuomos office said.

For example, on Aug. 30, an investigator created a profile for a 14-year-old female high school student from New York. The "student" received a Facebook message from a 24-year-old man, asking, "Do you have any nude pics?"

The investigator then lodged a complaint with Facebook as the students mother, complaining that her daughter was being targeted by older men. Facebook the next day sent a response saying that it "will review the reported material and remove anything that violates our Terms of Use."

However, The AGs office said Facebook has taken no further action, and the 24-year-old males profile is still available on the site.

Cuomo subpoenaed the company for complaints received by Facebook regarding inappropriate solicitation of underage users and inappropriate content on the site, as well as any responses by the Web site. The subpoena also calls for all Facebook policies on user safety and all representations made to consumers about the safety of the site.

This is the second time this month Facebook has attracted attention for its business and user practices. The company Sept. 5 made its member listings searchable by outside users and public search engines, threatening its hard-won reputation for strict privacy practices.


Facebook triggers privacy concerns. Click here to read more.

But the underage user issue is the latest in a series of moves by state attorneys general to crack down on sexual predators lurking on social networking sites.

Cuomo and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal have been particularly critical about the issue, but all 50 states are investigating Facebook, MySpace and others of its ilk. N.J. Attorney General Anne Milgram subpoenaed MySpace last month for the names and addresses of sex offenders using the social network.

Blumenthal said in a statement Sept. 24 that his office is negotiating with Facebook on protecting underage users, including a "productive, face-to-face meeting with Facebook representatives last week in my Hartford office."

"We will continue to consider all options, including possible legal action, to assure that Facebook and other social networking Web sites better protect children from sexual predators and adult material," Blumenthal said.

Facebook didnt always have such issues. The company launched solely as a service for college students but opened up to the general public two years ago. The result? Cuomo said in his letter that Facebook incurred the greater responsibility of protecting underage users, but hasnt lived up to the task.

His office "is concerned that in Facebooks efforts to grow, it may be giving a lower priority to the safety and welfare of its users, and in particular, its underage users," Cuomo wrote. "It does not have the right to represent that its site is safe and that it promptly responds to complaints when such statements are not accurate."

Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEKs Security Watch blog.