There are three questions that any politician attacking social networking sites, should have to answer, in order to be specific about what they want. First, what kind of contact do they think the social networking sites should prohibit between adults and minors? All politicians agree on prohibiting sexual solicitation, but that's a non-issue since that's already against the law. So are they asking the sites to block adults and minors from messaging each other at all? Or only "flirtatious" messages, or only requests to meet in person? Some of these answers are more ridiculous than others, but let them pick one. Second, if the site does try to monitor for inappropriate contact between adults and minors, is there any practical way to stop someone from falsely signing up as a minor? Third, if someone's account is cancelled for inappropriate behavior, what good does that do when they can just create another one? (Cuomo's office declined to respond to these questions, referring me only to their press releases. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.)
Complaining about the futility of Internet regulation is about as hard as complaining about media coverage of Paris Hilton. But in this case, it's not merely that the laws wouldn't do any good, it's that I can't see how the political grandstanding could even plausibly lead up to any laws, even stupid ones.
Facebook's big concession in their settlement with Cuomo was that they would respond faster to complaints sent to email@example.com about inappropriate contact. (Previously, the AG's office had sent test complaints to the firstname.lastname@example.org address saying things like, "My 13 YEAR OLD received this extremely inappropriate message from a local NYC man. Please take action IMMEDIATEL!" (sic), and received no response.) But what constitutes "abuse"? Facebook's Terms of Service do not mention contact between adults and minors except to say that you may not "solicit personal information from anyone under 18" (as written, this prohibition would apply to everyone, and not just adults). Does that mean you can send flirtatious messages to an underage user as long as you don't ask for contact information (which you wouldn't need to do anyway, if it's posted on their profile and they add you to their friends list)? For that matter, does that mean if you're 18 and you ask a 17-year-old Facebook user for her phone number, you're breaking the rules? (Or, wait, this applies even if you yourself are 17 as well!) Of course there's nothing new about terms of service agreements which are vaguely written and haphazardly enforced, or playing parlor games about how the terms would be absurd if taken literally. But when a government office is threatening to bring charges and possibly push for new laws unless Facebook agrees to enforce its own Terms of Service, then it's fair game to ask exactly what rules the AG's office is asking Facebook to make people follow.
What if Facebook blocked adults from contacting minors at all? Before, I would have assumed that Facebook would respond to this suggestion by saying that it was too draconian, that nobody had ever seriously tried to outlaw all contact between minors and adults on the Internet, etc. But Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer appeared at one point to endorse this policy as reasonable, by saying that, well, they did block adults from messaging minors on the site, even though they didn't. Cuomo's letter pointed out that any Facebook user can message any other user, and they still can. (I asked Facebook if their Chief Privacy Officer was misquoted in the article, but they didn't respond.) So leaving aside the question of whether Facebook should try to stop adults from messaging minors, would it even be possible? Of course you could block registered adult users from messaging registered underage users. But since any adult who planned on doing something suspicious would probably do it from a "throwaway" account instead of their real one, the question is whether you could screen people from creating "throwaway" accounts pretending to be minors -- sort of the opposite of adult credit-card verification for porn sites. (My suggestion: Make the person answer a question like, 'The way to impress a girl in high school is with (a) looks; (b) intelligence; (c) sense of humor; or (d) "confidence"'. From listening to most adults, you'd think they have no clue about the correct answer to this, except for the ones who also add, 'What do you mean, "in high school"?')
Facebook's current screening system is that anyone who registers as a high school student (and if you're under 18, you have to register as a high school or college student -- homeschoolers and dropouts are out of luck unless they lie about their age), has to be confirmed by an existing student at that school, by sending them a friend request and having them confirm that you are friends. (Your account still works before you're confirmed, but you blocked from certain things that only high school accounts can do, such as browse for other members of that high school.) This is another recent change that Facebook made that was not listed in their settlement agreement -- previously, the Attorney General had documented that anybody under 18 could sign up and join a high school network, but now, you can't do this without getting another student to confirm you.
However, this can be circumvented as well. I'm not endorsing the following trick for any mischief-making, but I think it's sufficiently obvious that there's no reason not to point it out: (1) create a profile of a non-overweight girl and sign up as a member of a high school network, pending confirmation; (2) search for several boys in that network and send them friend requests; and (3) wait for at least one of them to confirm you back, which they will probably do, without even being sure if they actually know you or not. Voila, you've got your "high school student" account. Then you can presumably use that account as a foothold to approve other accounts, for example if you're a male and you want to create a fake high schooler profile as an actual guy, assuming you only want to pretend to be a teenager, not a female, because it's not like you're not some kind of weirdo.
Facebook could conceivably require real-world verification for anyone who signed up as a minor -- confirmation from their school, for example. But this would be competitive suicide for any site whose main draw is that everybody wants to go there because everybody else is already there, so they need signups to be as easy as possible. Even if Congress passed a law draconion enough that it required all social networking sites to do this, Facebook could just re-incorporate overseas (for a billion dollars, wouldn't you move to Canada, Mark?), or else a foreign competitor could take over the teen-social-networking market by offering signups without cumbersome verifications. What would Congress do then, pass a law requiring ISPs to block access to overseas social-networking sites? They couldn't even do that with child pornography.
Finally, if Facebook does cancel your account, you can always sign up for a new one instantly with a new e-mail address. Losing your Facebook account might be a harsh punishment for someone who had built up an extensive network of contacts around their profile. But I'll bet that any adult with a network of friends on Facebook, built around a profile that gives their real name and employer, is probably using a secondary profile with a lot less information on it if they're writing to 13-year-old girls. A dispensable secondary account like that can easily be replaced, so Facebook responding to abuse reports by closing people's accounts is just playing whack-a-mole. An arrest can stop someone permanently, but you can only arrest someone if they've actually broken the law, like sending an unambiguous sexual solicitation to an underage user.
So there's really nothing that Facebook or any other social-networking site could do to prevent adults from signing up as minors, to prevent adults and minors from messaging each other, or to keep abusers from creating new accounts. Occasionally, they are able to make some minor concessions that a politician can take credit for -- in July, the attorney general of Connecticut alerted Facebook to three sex offenders who had profiles on the site, which Facebook duly removed. Did the sex offenders then sign up for new profiles? Are most sex offenders on Facebook smart enough not to sign up under their real names? Story doesn't say. That's one reason I could never make it as a regular reporter, because you're not allowed to insert your own voice into the story even to point out the crashingly obvious.
But basically, the major issues that politicians keep bringing up about social networking sites, are unsolvable. For a politician, of course, this is the best of both worlds -- they can rail against social networking sites forever, knowing that the "problems" will never go away.
This is usually the point at which the writer inserts an obligatory note that the real solution is to sit down and talk to your kids. Well, yes and no. I think first you should be as informed as possible about what the various risks are, not just for online activity but for all of life's experiences, and then sit down and talk. You could even do the research together and make a Family Fun Night out of it! (Sound of teenagers groaning and fumbling for their iPods.) For openers: one study found that in one year in the U.S., "Law enforcement at all levels made an estimated 2,577 arrests for Internet sex crimes against minors", and only 39% of those were for crimes against real, identifible minors (excluding arrests for To Catch A Predator-style sting operations). On the other hand, the National Transportation Safety Board reports that every year, about 3.4 million people are injured and 41,000 are killed in auto accidents in the U.S. Even this rough comparison would seem to suggest that until you've talked to your kid about every last detail you can think of regarding car safety, that's a better use of time than talking about Facebook. Perhaps you think it's an apples-and-oranges comparison because the sex crimes statistic counts only arrests, not actual incidents. But then the question is whether a true apples-to-apples comparison has ever been done, or how you could do one. The point is that there is some objective truth about the relative risks, and if you read even just one study comparing them, you're better informed than 90% of the people out there, including most parents. You want to be the cool Mom? You don't have to let your kids do everything, just have reasons for stuff!
My promise to my own future kids is that I won't ever make the mistake of thinking that just because I paid for their room and board for a few years, that makes me better informed about the various risks factors of different activities. I will probably be better informed than my kids, for a long while anyway, but that won't be why. And I hope we can teach them so much that before long they'll be better informed than most people, including most of their friends' parents. Then my wife will teach them to be polite enough not to point this out to their friends' parents, but with half their genes coming from me I wouldn't bet on it.