New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that more than 3,500 sex offenders from his state have been purged from Facebook and MySpace.
Both companies have long had policies against registered sex offenders using their services, but the implementation of New York's new Electronic Securing and Targeting of Online Predators Act ("E-Stop") has made it easier for the sites to identify perpetrators from the Empire State.
Facebook, according to Cuomo, was able to identify and disable the accounts of 2,782 registered sex offenders. MySpace deleted 1,796 accounts.
Cuomo has long been concerned about predators on social-networking sites. In January 2008, New York was one of 49 states that entered into an agreement with MySpace that resulted in a set of principles to combat harmful material on MySpace and other sites. In October 2007, Cuomo's office said Facebook could face a consumer fraud charge for misrepresenting the site's safety for minors, but two weeks later Cuomo and Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly held a joint press conference to announce a "cooperative effort."
The E-Stop law bans many registered offenders from using social-networking sites while on parole or probation and requires all registered offenders to disclose their e-mail addresses, screen names, and "other Internet identifiers." That data is provided to social-networking sites to run against their roles.
The state of New York, according to Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt, "built its database with the idea of social-networking companies running it against their user base." He said the way it was coded, made it a lot easier to find matches. Other states, said Schnitt, "sometimes just fax over a list. Their databases are designed to help people find out if there is a sex offender living on their street. This is a very different use case."
Sex offender data is collected by states and there is no currently official federal database. The federal Adam Walsh act calls for such a database but it hasn't been funded. In 2006, MySpace contracted with Sentinel Safe to build a national and searchable registered sex offender database.
While praising Facebook and MySpace's cooperation, Cuomo said that "many other social-networking sites remain slow at adopting available new protections against sexual predators online." He said his office "sent letters urging them to take action now to similarly purge sex offenders from their sites."
As always, it's important to put this news into perspective. It only involves registered sex offenders, which, of course, is a good start, but it only includes people who have been caught and convicted. And, while the companies do their best to ferret out registered offenders who try to hide their identity, there is no way to know how many people succeed in eluding them.
Also, we know of very few children who have been sexually molested by someone they met on social-networking sites or any Internet sites. The vast majority of child sex abuse victims know the offender from the real world. I'm not aware of any cases of a pre-pubescent child being harmed by someone he or she met online and it's even rare among teens.
And, based on conversations with security officials at social-networking companies, I am not aware of any cases where a registered sex offender has been convicted of using the site to aid in harming a child he or she met on that site.
"There are still zero cases reported of any registered sex offender who was booted off MySpace being prosecuted for illegal contact occurring on MySpace," said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace parent company News Corp.
In January, the Harvard Law Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force issued a report that children and teens are less vulnerable to sexual predators than many had feared, though that report was initially met with some skepticism from some attorneys general.