After long negotiations, Facebook agrees to safety plan with state AGs

Social network has reached a deal with attorneys general of 49 states and the District of Columbia to try to make the site safer for youths.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

This post was updated at 11:02 AM PT with comment from MySpace.

Facebook on Thursday reached a user safety agreement with the attorneys general of 49 states and the District of Columbia, much as rival MySpace.com did several months ago.

"We've agreed with 49 states and the District of Columbia to set up principles around Internet safety," Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly explained in an interview with CNET News.com. The agreement is centered on "largely features that (Facebook) has in place already, but that we've committed to continuing and to enhance over time," Kelly said.

In the deal, the social network has agreed to develop age verification technology, send warning messages when an under-18 user may be giving personal information to an unknown adult, restrict the ability for people to change their ages on the site, and keep abreast of inappropriate content and harassment on the site.

While the agreement is with U.S. state authorities, Kelly said that the tools deployed will apply to Facebook's international users as well. More than half of the site's 70 million users are outside the U.S.

The only state that did not agree to Facebook's plan was Texas, which likewise did not sign on to the plan that News Corp.'s MySpace created in conjunction with the attorneys general in January.

"Texas continues to have concerns in the area in general, but we do continue our dialogue with the state of Texas," Kelly said. "We had a long, fruitful set of discussions with them, and we plan on continuing them."

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based social network, which was launched in 2004 as a side project for then-Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg and his friends, first began publicly dealing with state attorneys general last October. Andrew Cuomo, the New York state attorney general, subpoenaed Facebook after his office conducted an undercover investigation that he said yielded a slow response from the social network to complaints of harassment and inappropriate conduct.

Later that month, Facebook reached an accord with Cuomo's office, in which Kelly admitted that Facebook had "slipped a little bit" in its vigilance toward user privacy.

MySpace, meanwhile, agreed to an extensive social-networking safety plan in January that involved the formation of an Internet Safety Task Force on the part of the attorneys general. This followed months of subpoenas and press releases about the safety of minors on MySpace, which grew popular long before Facebook became the current poster child of social media. Kelly said that Facebook has signed on to the task force, but that MySpace is not a part of Thursday's announcement.

He added that the two partnerships with authorities are inherently different. "The MySpace agreement was very focused on a number of site changes that they needed to make, and this is focused on the deployment of technology that we've been in discussions with the attorneys general for quite some time."

As for why it took more time for Facebook to make its announcement, Kelly said, "Sometimes it just takes longer to come to an understanding of the framework."

MySpace chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam released a statement Thursday in response: "We commend the Attorneys General for their continued leadership to make the Internet safer," he wrote, "and are pleased that Facebook has followed suit to implement many of the safety standards that MySpace pioneered."

For a massive social site like Facebook (or MySpace, for that matter), negotiations with the state attorneys general inevitably go beyond child safety. Security and identity theft, such as the threat of malicious "phishing" for personal information, are also hot issues. "There is a specific provision in the agreement around phishing, and antiphishing tips, which we've already implemented," Kelly said. "We've been very focused on that as a potential issue."

And when questioned about what the authorities think of Facebook's controversial "social ads"--which some have held up as a violation of user privacy--Kelly's response was general. "We're having a variety of conversations with them at all times, and we obviously want governments to understand at all times," he said. "We always have discussions on those with the attorneys general and other government agents."

Earlier this week, it was revealed that Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications and public policy at Google, had been hired in a similar role at Facebook. Dealing with legal authorities will be a major part of Schrage's role. He called Schrage a "wonderful addition" to Facebook's staff.

"I think that we have been building a great capacity to have discussions with governments and various public bodies," Kelly said, "and we're excited to have him on the team."