8.8 Predators and Privacy

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Understand the extent and scope of the predator problem on online social networks.
  2. Recognize the steps firms are taking to proactively engage and limit these problems.

While spoiling Christmas is bad, sexual predators are far worse, and in October 2007, Facebook became an investigation target. Officials from the New York State Attorney General’s office had posed as teenagers on Facebook and received sexual advances. Complaints to the service from investigators posing as parents were also not immediately addressed. These were troubling developments for a firm that prided itself on trust and authenticity.

In a 2008 agreement with forty-nine states, Facebook offered aggressive programs, many of which put it in line with MySpace. MySpace had become known as a lair for predators, and after months of highly publicized tragic incidents, the firm had become very aggressive about protecting minors. To get a sense of the scope of the problem, consider that MySpace claimed that it had found and deleted some twenty-nine thousand accounts from its site after comparing profiles against a database of convicted sex offenders1. Following MySpace’s lead, Facebook agreed to respond to complaints about inappropriate content within twenty-four hours and to allow an independent examiner to monitor how it handles complaints. The firm imposed age-locking restrictions on profiles, reviewing any attempt by someone under the age of eighteen to change their date of birth. Profiles of minors were no longer searchable. The site agreed to automatically send a warning message when a child is at risk of revealing personal information to an unknown adult. And links to explicit material, the most offensive Facebook groups, and any material related to cyberbullying were banned.

Busted on Facebook

Chapter 7 “Peer Production, Social Media, and Web 2.0” warned that your digital life will linger forever, and that employers are increasingly plumbing the depths of virtual communities in order to get a sense of job candidates. And it’s not just employers. Sleuths at universities and police departments have begun looking to Facebook for evidence of malfeasance. Oxford University fined graduating students more than £10,000 for their post-exam celebrations, evidence of which was picked up from Facebook. Police throughout the United States have made underage drinking busts and issued graffiti warnings based on Facebook photos, too. Beware—the Web knows!

Key Takeaways

  • Thousands of sex offenders and other miscreants have been discovered on MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks. They are a legitimate risk to the community and they harm otherwise valuable services.
  • A combination of firm policies, computerized and human monitoring, aggressive reporting and follow-up, and engagement with authorities can reduce online predator risks.
  • Firms that fail to fully engage this threat put users and communities at risk and may experience irreparable damage to firms and reputations.

Questions and Exercises

  1. How big was the predator problem on MySpace? What efforts have social networks employed to cut down on the number of predators online?
  2. Investigate the current policies regarding underage users on Facebook. Do you think the firm adequately protects its users? Why or why not?
  3. What age is appropriate for users to begin using social networks? Which services are appropriate at which ages? Are there social networks targeted at very young children? Do you think that these are safe places? Why or why not?

1“Facebook Targets China, World’s Biggest Web Market,” Reuters, June 20, 2008.


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