Facebook, 49 States in Web Safety Pact

SAN FRANCISCO — Social networking site Facebook announced an agreement on Thursday with 49 U.S. state attorneys general and the District of Columbia to increase efforts to protect its youngest members from sexual predators.

The additional safety measures follow a similar agreement in January struck by larger rival MySpace, which also included every state apart from Texas.

Facebook said it would focus on improving the technology it employs to weed out inappropriate online behavior, and to make it tougher for adults to make friends with minors.

The agreement reflects its commitment to “keeping kids safe online,” said Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer.

Both the Facebook and MySpace agreements were in response to calls from attorneys general to improve online safeguards.

The millions of youngsters who share everything from music tastes to intimate details of their lives online have turned social networks into hunting grounds for sexual predators.

Without checks, an adult can pose as a minor and lure a child into parting with information.

Last October, Facebook and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo agreed to settle a child safety probe after undercover tests on the social network’s safety controls and procedures showed lapses.

Investigators from Cuomo’s office posed as young teenagers on Facebook and received sexual advances from adults within days. Complaints by investigators posing as parents were not immediately addressed, Cuomo’s office said.

Facebook then agreed to begin addressing within 24 hours any complaint about inappropriate content and allow an independent examiner to oversee how it handles the complaints.

The website is now taking steps to ensure safety, including “age-locking” of the profiles of under-18 members, Kelly said.

“If people try to change their ages, it will be specifically reviewed,” Kelly said.

Another feature sends warning messages when a child is at risk of revealing personal information to an unknown adult.

Facebook also said it would immediately remove user groups dedicated to incest, pedophilia and cyber-bullying, and remove links to pornographic materials from its website.

Widgets — entertaining applications built by independent software developers and hosted on Facebook — will also have to enforce the social network’s safety and privacy measures.

But several attorneys general cautioned that stepping up safety measures is no substitute for parental supervision.

“Parents are the most important protective measure,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement. “Parents should have repeated conversations with youths about possible threats, including online predators, and should know what sites their children are visiting.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett urged parents to report people who sexually solicit children or send sexually graphic photos or videos.

MySpace, whose agreement with 49 attorneys general also took steps to let minors keep profiles “private”, was subject to a 2006 lawsuit by a 14-year-old girl who said she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on the site.

Last July, MySpace, owned by News Corp, said it had deleted 29,000 convicted sex offenders from its site.

Facebook, a privately held company based in Palo Alto, California, was started by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 as a socializing site for fellow Harvard University students. It has since opened up to anyone over 13 years of age with an e-mail address. Facebook says it has 70 million active members.

More than half its members are college graduates, and the fastest-growing demographic is 25 years and up, Kelly said.

Kelly said Facebook is part of an Internet Task Force set up in January, when the MySpace agreement was signed, that is working on the feasibility of online verification technology.

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