Kids like social networking sites, most notably MySpace and Facebook. So it is not surpising that law enforcement is scrutinizing how the sites protect children. Recent subpoenas issued to Facebook by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram are illustrative.
Both subpoenas sought information about Facebook’s Internet safety and security policies. The New York subpoena, issued last month, also sought information concerning Facebook’s complaint resolution procedures. In its subpoena cover letter to Facebook, Attorney General Cuomo noted Facebook’s public representations concerning how it responds to reports of pornographic material and inappropriate contact with minors. It also described its undercover investigation of Facebook. According to the letter, the investigation revealed pornographic and other inappropriate content readily available on the site. In addition, after investigators set up profiles as young teenage users, they received inappropriate sexual advances. The investigators filed complaints about these issues through Facebooks’ complaint procedures. The letter notes various instances of non-responsiveness or delayed response to such complaints. The New Jersey subpoena issued earlier this month, described here, sought information from Facebook concerning convicted New Jersey sex offenders that Facebook has identified as site users. Facebook previously informed the New Jersey Attorney General it had removed sex offenders with profiles matching individuals listed on the New Jersey sex offender registry. Attorney General Milgram also sent letters to eleven other social networking sites requesting they compare their registrants against the state’s sex offender list.
These actions from New York and New Jersey are the latest steps by attorneys general from all 50 states to pressure social networking sites to enhance security protocols, specifically parental controls and age verification tools because of the vulnerability of children to online predators and inappropriate content. In particular, since early last year, Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General and Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Attorney General, have led a task force of the attorneys general calling on social networking sites to increase protections for children. Some of the steps the task force has urged of social networking sites have included enhanced age verification tools, restrictions on the ability of children increased parental consent to allow children to make profiles available to others in the absence of parental consent, increased staff and technology dedicated to screening inappropriate content, giving parents software to block the site, and raising the minimum age of participation to 16.
This Spring, MySpace was in the news after receiving a letter from eight attorneys general demanding information concerning registered sex offenders on its site. After initially asserting it was unable to legally comply, MySpace struck an agreement with the attorneys general about the form of the requests. MySpace later announced it had removed more than 29,000 profiles of sex offenders from its site.
North Carolina and Connecticut are among states that introduced legislation requiring age verification measures on websites. Those bills have not passed but are expected to be introduced in future legislative sessions.
Businesses developing social networking sites that may attract children should not only comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) and its regulations concerning parental consent when collecting personal information of children, but should also be aware of increased state activity that may require enhanced practices. Companies should consider scrubbing user profiles against sex offender registries and utilizing enhanced tools for age verification. Finally, companies should be sure they are not making any security representations they are not abiding by or with which they cannot comply.