SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Facebook came under fire on Monday from a state attorney general who accused the fast-growing social networking site of falling short in protecting young users from sexual predators on its site.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in an interview his office had learned of "at least three" convicted sex offenders on Facebook's site and that may be the "tip of the iceberg."
"These individuals are using their real names after convictions for felony sexual offenses," Blumenthal told Reuters. "There may be thousands or hundreds of thousands using aliases or false identities who have never been convicted."
The state official said Facebook appears to suffer some of the dangers from predators and pornography that larger and more freewheeling social network site MySpace does. Last week, MySpace said it had deleted 29,000 convicted sex offenders from its own service, which attracts 60 million U.S. visitors.
Started in 2004 by then-undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg as a socializing site for fellow Harvard University students, Facebook opened up more than a year ago to allow users of all ages to create personal profiles to share with friends.
Facebook, with privacy features encouraging members to share personal details like phone numbers, political loyalties or dating status for an approved circle of friends, has grown by more than a third to 33 million members in the past two months.
Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly said Facebook has privacy features unlike other social network sites that segment users by age, organization and region and make it hard for adults to contact users under the age of 18.
In particular, Facebook protects users under 18 by preventing adults from contacting them if the adults are not affiliated with a specific school network, Kelly said.
Kelly acknowledged Facebook has detected sexual predators and other abusive practices on the site but said the numbers were small.
"There is a non-zero number. We have been able to handle abuses with the accountability of having a real-name culture versus a 'screen-name' culture," he said.
Kelly said Facebook had been notified Monday afternoon by the Connecticut attorney general's office of three specific profiles set up by known sex offenders and that the Palo Alto, California-based company had quickly removed these Web pages.
"There is no city in existence, let alone one that has 33 million citizens, that doesn't have occasional crime," Kelly said. "The question is: Does the site make it easier or harder to commit crimes and what does it do to address them?"
TECHNICAL VERSUS LEGAL PROTECTIONS
Blumenthal and attorneys general from other states have been pushing for state and federal laws to require social network sites to seek age and identity verification from users as well as parental consent for minors to join such sites.
But critics of laws that rely on voluntary verification measures say there is no simple way to screen for sex offenders and kids masquerading as older users or to ensure whether parental authorization actually is given by parents or by kids pretending to be their parents.
Companies such as Facebook and MySpace are scrambling to develop technologies that automatically seek to protect underage users from predators as well as other forms of abuse including pornography and threats against individual users.
"We believe, and they (Facebook) agree, that screening out those images as well as age and identity verification are all affordable and feasible with today's technology," Blumenthal said after a meeting between his staff and Facebook on Monday.
"Their response, simply, was that they want to cooperate and do the right thing," he added.
MySpace has turned to background verification company Sentinel Tech Holding Corp., which has co-developed the first nationwide database of convicted U.S. sex felons to make it easy to detect offenders online. There were 600,000 registered U.S. sex offenders as of May.
"It's when adults and kids play in the same space that things get sticky and the effectiveness of age verification seems to go out the window," Sentinel CEO and founder John Cardillo said of the dilemma facing social networks.
Kelly said Facebook has designed its site from the outset to protect users' privacy and has developed additional technologies since then to offer further protections. The company is evaluating technologies from outside vendors to help it increase its surveillance of potential predators.
"It is better to have some sort of verification on the front end and various forms of behavioral verification on the back end," Kelly said of Facebook's approach to site safety.