AGs Chasing Facebook Headlines?


The nation’s attorneys general, led by New York’s Andrew Cuomo, seem to be pulling a page out of the Peninsula PR piggybacking playbook by launching official investigations, complete with subpoenas, into whether Facebook, “is misleading users by promoting itself as a place where high school students and younger children are safe from adult sexual predators.”

This looks like an attempt to capitalize politically on a hot technology trend, because any story about Facebook is going to get lots of attention. Add in sexual predation, and you’ve got hundreds of Google news headlines.

The so-called scandal is pretty flimsy so far. But I guess that’s what the subpoenas are for. Sort of gives a whole new meaning to “bully” pulpit, doesn’t it?

The Los Angeles Times‘ story says…

To conduct its sting, Cuomo’s office set up several Facebook accounts, posing as 12- to 14-year-old users. Within days, the fake users had received several sexual solicitations from adults. Cuomo says the company ignored complaints about the inappropriate contact.

“Several” sting accounts, and “several” sexual solicitations. No details as to how many accounts or how many solicitations. So they may have set up 100 accounts and gotten three dirty messages. The New York Times at least reported that Cuomo’s office had refused to give any specific numbers.

Prosecutors would not release details about when the sting operation began or how many profiles it set up, and they would not share links to the fake profiles because the investigation is continuing, said Jeffrey Lerner, the director of communications for the attorney general’s office.

So this is a case of, “take our word for it, it was several.” And just in case you’re suspicious, they trump your questions with the killer anecdote:

But about a week after an investigator from Mr. Cuomo’s office set up a profile for a fictitious 14-year-old girl on Aug. 30, a 24-year-old man sent a message through Facebook asking her for “nude pics,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Two issues here:

First, did the New York AG pursue prosecution of the 24-year-old? When NBC does its “To Catch a Predator” series, luring pedophiles to meet with their supposedly underage prey, at least the bad guys get arrested. What kind of sting operation doesn’t go after the creeps, but instead after the medium that carries their messages?

Second, what kind of girls would send “nude pics” of themselves to strangers?

I have three daughters in Facebook, and tonight I asked one of them whether she had ever gotten a message asking her to send nude pictures to someone. Here’s where the conversation went from there:

R: “No, Dad.”

Me: “Well, if you ever do get a message like that, don’t send any pictures, OK?”

R: “OK, Dad.”

Whew! That was close! What if she would have gotten a message from Mr. Cuomo’s 24-year-old before I had talked with her?

As the New York Times further elaborates:

In a separate case, an investigator from Mr. Cuomo’s office set up profiles for a 13-year-old girl and for an adult who wrote to the teen, saying, “You’ve got quite a hot little bod.” The investigator, posing as the girl’s mother, forwarded the offensive message to Facebook and demanded that the company take immediate action. There was no response, Mr. Cuomo said.

No wonder Facebook is growing by 200,000 users a day! In that one operation the New York AG’s office set up three accounts: one for the fake teen, one for the fake pedophile and one for the fake mom. And maybe that’s where Peninsula got its figures about workers wasting time in Facebook. Was it a study of Mr. Cuomo’s office?

In contrast to these fakers, in my family we have “several” (six) real Facebook members: my wife, one son, three daughters and me. We have found that Facebook’s privacy settings are quite strong and flexible. No one sees your profile information without your permission, and there are all sorts of reminders throughout the site about how to modify privacy settings. My oldest daughter even met her husband in Facebook.

Sexually explicit spam has been non-existent for me in Facebook, in contrast to MySpace, where I’ve had “several” (12) friend invitations in the last month accompanied by links to sites with “nude pics.” My son got rid of his MySpace account for exactly that reason; I’m just keeping mine to make a point about the difference between Facebook and MySpace, and until I fill out my Alla to Zada roster of invitations.

Also, because in Facebook you need to go through a laborious Captcha process to prove you’re human and not a spam-bot when you’re sending messages, until you verify your account via text message to your cell phone, it’s much less prone to general spam.

Now, if we can just get our top state law enforcement officials to stop spamming through Facebook….

Still, even though it’s a challenge with more than 200,000 new accounts a day, Facebook does need to do better in responding to parent complaints like this, even the fictitious ones. The Wall Street Journal said this week that Microsoft wants a 5 percent stake in Facebook and may pay $500 million for it, which would make the company worth $10 billion. Facebook can afford to hire some more people to respond more quickly to parent complaints.

Facebook needs to do this not primarily to mollify the AGs, but instead to be vigilant about protecting its brand and ensuring that the reality of the safety and strong privacy options tens of millions of its users have experienced continues. That’s why Facebook has been growing so rapidly, and why valuations of six times YouTube and double the Wall Street Journal are being tossed around.

Of course Facebook needs to take these investigations seriously; just ask Microsoft what happens when attorneys general band against you. But based on my family’s experience, and as validated by TIME, for instance, I believe Facebook will come through this relatively unblemished.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

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