FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2013-01-18
When people log onto the popular social networking site Facebook, they expect that their conversations are only read by those given permission through their privacy settings. However, an anonymous, automated presence constantly trolls Facebook accounts, hunting for inappropriate language and the sharing of personal contact information.
This presence is Facebook’s sophisticated software created to identify and block people who appear to be soliciting sex online. Some believe its implementation goes too far and violates a person’s privacy.
A closer look at Facebook’s software
To develop the software, Facebook had the software program study the records of convicted sex offenders. Armed with this data, the software now trolls users’ Facebook activity looking for inappropriate language and the exchange of personal information.
If it finds something that is in its database of inappropriate language, it collects the user’s personal information, including his or her phone number, email and log-in information and then silences the user automatically. While no one on the Facebook team is involved in this intervention, the software’s actions are reported to staff later. Staff can then use this information to notify law enforcement.
How big is the online solicitation problem?
Many people question Facebook’s use of this invasive software. One big argument against the use of the software is that sex crimes are rarely committed online, and, in fact, internet-based sex crimes are actually falling in number, not growing. In 2011, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processed just 3,638 reports of adults sexually enticing children online, down from 4,053 cases in 2010 and 5,759 cases in 2009.
Most sex crimes against children are usually perpetrated by adults the children know, not strangers who kids meet online. In fact, companies like Facebook spend more time and effort looking for instances of bullying than for potential sex crimes against children.
A privacy rights and freedom of speech issue
Some argue using software to troll user websites for questionable material, regardless of having good reason to do so, infringes on a user’s privacy. Some states have taken bans from social networking sites even further, barring registered sex offenders from using the sites altogether.
Now, defendants in Louisiana, Indiana and neighboring Nebraska have challenged these state laws in federal court, arguing the bans infringe on their right to freedom of speech. Facebook has permeated many popular websites, and posting comments to news articles and blog posts is often mediated through Facebook. Because of this, some argue that prohibiting offenders from having a Facebook account infringes on their rights to free speech on other sites. In the Nebraska case, the judge ruled that offenders cannot be barred from joining social networking sites by state law.