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Facebook agrees to shield minors

Times Staff Writers

Facebook Inc. on Tuesday ended an investigation by New York’s attorney general by agreeing to changes designed to shield minors from pornographic images and improper advances from adults.

The fast-growing social networking website promised to respond to complaints within 24 hours and to follow up within three days, said Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo and Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly during a news conference in New York.

“Facebook will be safer,” Cuomo said in closing the probe, which centered on whether the Palo Alto-based company was deceptive in promoting its site as safe for young users. “We’ve established a new model for child protection on the Net.”

After hearing from concerned parents in recent months, Cuomo’s investigators posed as young teens and said they were harassed and invited to adult-oriented groups. When they then posed as parents and reported the incidents, Cuomo’s office said, Facebook failed to act.

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Such issues will be handled quickly from now on, the two sides said Tuesday. An independent examiner approved by Cuomo’s office will monitor Facebook’s handling of complaints and report on the matter for two years.

Facebook will post on its pages an e-mail address for complaints, abuse@facebook.com, and an unusual warning to parents that their children aren’t guaranteed an inoffensive environment.

“It puts Facebook users on notice that it’s not a walled garden,” said Larry Magid, who co-directs a nonprofit, ConnectSafely.org, that gets funding from the largest networking sites.

Magid also said the speedy-response requirement was a welcome push to give consumer complaints more power. But he called the new Facebook measures “the easy stuff.” The harder work, he said, would include age verification and education to help people deal with harassment and bullying, which are much more common than sex offenders meeting minors.

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A task force created by several other states is continuing to press Facebook and its larger rival MySpace on other issues related to teen safety. Many states want such online gathering spots to verify the ages claimed by users and to require parental permission for those under 18 who want to post personal information.

Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general and a leader of the multistate group, praised the New York deal. But in an interview he warned that issues such as “access by minors to adults who may be seeking sex or predators having the ability to reach minors [and] inappropriate ads that target minors . . . are every bit as much in need of action as well.”

MySpace has resisted age verification as impractical, predicting that it would tempt children to impersonate their parents. After coming under fire a year ago, the News Corp.-owned site made other moves, such as shielding the personal pages of 14- and 15-year-olds from searches by adults and checking its registered users against databases of convicted sex offenders. Unlike Facebook, MySpace pre-screens images and videos to block pornography.

MySpace declined to comment Tuesday.

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Facebook executives said they had been caught by surprise when Cuomo went public with his concerns last month, and then they immediately began working with him.

“We see this as a call to arms for every other site out there to offer the same service levels,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s vice president of product marketing and operations. “We are committed to having resources in place that are dedicated to solving these problems.”

Palihapitiya and Cuomo said they hoped other social networking sites would feel compelled to compete on the basis of the protections they offer teens and their parents.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

jessica.guynn@latimes.com


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