In an effort that began with MySpace.com, Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann is continuing to address concerns of inappropriate online usage, this time focusing on the popular social networking Web site Facebook.com.
“The office is very involved in working with social networking sites that are targeted towards children to make sure that they are safe for children both in terms of materials that are posted and available and from adults who would inappropriately try to contact them,” said Chris Geidner, counsel to the attorney general.
For most Miami University students, like sophomore Hui Hui Ooi, the thought of sexual predators on Facebook has never crossed their minds.
“I never thought about sexual predators using Facebook to stalk people,” Ooi said. “It’s kind of scary because people actually have their address on Facebook, which increases the chances for somebody to follow them home.”
According to Geidner, Dann began focusing on other sites following a previous investigation on the Web site MySpace, which began this May.
He said that along with state attorneys from North Carolina and Connecticut, Ohio is working with Facebook to make the site more minor-friendly, an investigation prompted by a search for other sites that were approaching MySpace status in terms of usage and popularity.
With more than 200,000 new registrations daily since January 2007, Facebook has more than 43 million active users compared to the 180 million users on MySpace, according to their Web site statistics.
Originally a college-only site, Facebook extended services to high school students in September 2005 and has since opened the site to anyone over the age of 13. Currently, more than half of users are outside of college and users 25 years old and over are among the fastest growing demographic.
According to Geidner, Dann’s staff began researching the site to see what Facebook was doing right and wrong and how easy it was for an adult to get in contact with a child.
“We had believed that Facebook was going to be a much safer site until we started digging in and doing the tests,” Geidner said. “We found things that disturbed and deeply concerned us about (people who have) access to minors and what minors have access to.”
While testing the site, Dann’s staff found inappropriate material such as Facebook groups about bomb making, sex and an Ayran nation.
“There was a group about how to make your own cocaine, which clearly is not just inappropriate for minors, but (also) advocates illegal activity,” Geidner said. “With the group functions and applications, it’s very easy (to find) something that may be appropriate for a college student or someone 21 that isn’t appropriate for minors.”
Along with other state attorneys, Geidner said Dann addressed those findings and other concerns with Facebook representatives during a meeting Sept. 17.
Among concerns is the accessibility of adults to minors through global searches offered on Facebook. Users can search high schools and graduates as well as current students, which poses a problem when the users are randomly searching for high school students, Geidner said.
“Facebook still needs to put systems on the site to make sure that the site is safe for children from people who have not been convicted, but are still trying to find children on Facebook,” Geidner said.
Facebook currently limits the results users above 21 years of age can receive when searching high schools.
According to Geidner, if users simply search the name of a high school, they will receive a list of everyone in the school’s network, including past and current students. However, if users search a high school with a specific graduation year, their results will be limited to students who have already graduated.
According to Geidner, this is a good safeguard feature on Facebook that can be expanded to further protect minors. Sexual predators can still find current high school students if they are willing to sift through the entire list, he said.
Although weeding out sexual predators on the site is important, Geidner said it is only part of the problem.
“That’s not the number of people that would do harm to children,” Geidner said. “That’s just the number of people who already have.”
For Miami senior Kyle Schmitt, the risks of Facebook depend on how a person uses the site.
“I don’t use it as a dating service,” Schmitt said. “I use it to see what people are doing and to keep up with friends.”
Even so, Schmitt can understand why there is a concern about Facebook, especially for younger females using the site.
“I would worry about an uneducated user (that is a girl) Facebooking a hot guy who turns out to be a sex predator,” Schmitt said. “The younger you are, the more susceptible you are to build a relationship based on pictures and material posted on the site.”
For some students, like Miami senior Kira Gilbert, the presence of sex predators would not impact the way she uses Facebook due to the privacy settings set up on the site.
“I already have it on the base limited for what people can view so it wouldn’t really affect me,” Gilbert said.
Facebook allows users to set up their own privacy settings, which can limit who can search and view their profile as well as what information on the profile can be seen, something that Miami senior Anna Nowak believes every student should do to protect him or herself.
“I didn’t have anything blocked before,” Nowak said. “I know high schools teachers who have joined and people even asked my mom to join; that’s when I started blocking my site. I want to tell people who don’t have their information blocked to do that.”
Despite the fact that the project is still in its early stages, Geidner said Dann is encouraged by the conversations with Facebook, which have been more productive compared to MySpace, Geidner said.
“(Facebook is) much more closely in line with the vision of what they think their site should be and what the attorney general thinks it should be,” Geidner said. “At this point, we are encouraged by the fact that they express the same interest in the safety and openness (of the site) … With the controls and functionality of (Facebook), we hope that it can’t become the same sort of Web site that MySpace appears (to have) become (in regards the anonymity that can be obtained through MySpace).”
According to Geidner, Dann plans to meet with representatives from both Facebook and MySpace in the future.