December 7, 2009


By Abu Bakar Munir & Siti Hajar Mohd. Yasin

The Social Networking Sites (SNSs) is one of the most remarkable technology phenomena of the 21st century. If MySpace alone were a country and each of its profiles a person, it would be the 12th most populous nation in the world. Socialising in cyberspace through SNSs has become a culture especially among the youngsters.

The SNSs bring benefits to the world and its populations. They allow and facilitate relationship building and identity exploration. They encourage creativity and development of the arts, information-sharing, education and grassroots advocacy. Communication is made easy on SNSs. Users can connect with groups of friends, colleagues and relatives by a click of a button. Users identify their beliefs, interests and hobbies on their profiles. Individuals are expressing and sharing their creativity on SNSs. They are uploading and discussing their writings, movies, and visual art, etc.

The SNSs, however, have also been linked, directly or indirectly to many issues and problems. In the US, Lori Drew was charged in the Central District of California with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The allegation was that the Defendant created a MySpace account under the name of “Josh Evans”. Through the “Josh Evans” account, the defendant communicated and developed an online relationship with Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl. At some points during their communications “Josh Evans” said hurtful things to Miss Meier. Tragically, as a result, Miss Meier took her own life. The federal jury on 26 November 2008 convicted Lori Drew of unauthorized computer access under the CFAA for violating the MySpace terms of service. MySpace was not a defendant in the action. It is, however, a part of the problem.

In January 2008, the U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged, a SNS specifically targeting kids and “tweens,” for the violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The COPPA prohibits unfair and deceptive acts or practices in connection with the collection, use, or disclosure of personally identifiable information from and about children on the Internet. The most popular SNS in Brazil, Orkut, is said to have become a paradise for pedophiles. According to the SaferNet Brazil, the number of new reports involving Orkut profiles and communities with child sexual abuse contents has grown dramatically since June 2005.

Some initiatives have been or being taken to address the issue. The International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications has issued a Report and Guidance on Privacy in Social Network Services in March 2008. According to this Working Group, while it is possible to identify some risks associated to the provision and use of social network services, it is very likely that we are at present only looking at the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, the U.K Office of Communications (OFCOM) lists out several areas of potentially risky behaviour of SNSs members. These include; (1) giving out sensitive personal information, photographs and other content ; (2) posting content (especially photos) that could be reputationallly damaging; and (3) contacting people they didn’t (and/or didn’t know well) online/accepting people they didn’t know as ‘friends’.

Mainly, too much and too detailed information of the SNSs visitors have been posted online. Having too many “friends” is risky as some of these ‘friends’ are less friendly or very unfriendly. According to the U.K Home Office, “Most children and young people use the Internet positively but sometimes behave in ways that may place them at risk. Some of these actions to them may be harmless but could expose them to potential harm”.

It is not an exaggeration to argue that it is more difficult to protect children online than offline today. The European Union has been very active in the efforts of protecting children online. It introduced the Safer Internet Action Plan (SIAP) which ran from 1999-2004 with a total budget of 38.3 million Euros. Thirty seven projects were co-funded in the first 4 years of the SIAP. In 2005, as a continuation of the SIAP, the Safer Internet plus Programme (2005-2008) was introduced. The aims were to promote safer use of the Internet and new online technologies, particularly for children and to fight against illegal content and content unwanted by the end-user.

Following the success of the SIAP and Safer Internet plus Programme, on 9 December 2008, the European Council of Ministers adopted the new Safer Internet Programme (SIP)(2009-2013) with the budget of 55 million Euros. The focus is on the practical help for the end-user particularly children, parents, carers and educators. The SIP seeks to involve and bring together the different stakeholders including content providers, Internet Service Providers, mobile network operators, regulators, industry self-regulatory bodies, education, families and many more.

Apart from this inter - governmental initiatives, many tips, guidance and recommendations have been issued by many entities and organizations. The International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications has issued some guidance and recommendations to regulators as well as providers and users of social network services. The Working Group recommends regulators to consider: (1) introduce the option of a right to pseudonymous use, (2) ensure that service providers are honest and clear about what information is required for the basic service so that users can make an informed choice, (3) introduction of an obligation to data breach notification for social network services, (4) re-thinking the current regulatory framework with respect to controllership, and (5) improve integration of privacy issues into the educational system.

The Working Group urges the social network services providers to have vital interest in preserving the security and privacy of the personal data of their users. The recommendations to the service providers are: (1) transparent and open information of users, (2) introduce the creation and use of pseudonymous profiles as an option, (3) living up to promises made to users, (4) improve user control over use of profile data, (5) introduce appropriate complaint handling mechanisms, (6) improve and maintain security of information systems, (7) devise and/or further improve measures against illegal activities, such as spamming, and ID theft, and (8) offer encrypted connections for maintaining user profiles.

The U.S National Cyber Alert System (US-Cert) has issued a general, simple and practical tips to protect children and young people socializing through SNSs. Firstly, limit the amount of personal information to be posted online. Do not post information that would make children vulnerable (e.g. address, information about schedule or routine). Secondly, remember that Internet is a public resource - only post information that children are comfortable with anyone seeing. Thirdly, be wary of strangers – the Internet makes it easy for people to misrepresent their identities and motives. Consider limiting the people who are allowed to be in contact with children. Fourthly, be skeptical – do not believe everything written online. People may post false or misleading information about various topics, including their own identities. This is not necessarily done with malicious intent, it could be unintentional, a product of exaggeration, or a joke.

The FTC has issued Safety Tips for Social Networking Online. One of the tips for parents is to keep the computer in an open area, such as the kitchen or family room, so that the parent can keep an eye on where their kids are going online and what they are doing.

The U.K Home Office offers significantly elaborative and comprehensive recommendations for good practices to service providers as well as safety tips for parents, carers, children and young people. Among others, the Home Office recommends that the service providers should: (1) make safety information for users, parents and carers, prominent, easily accessible and clear, (2) offers links to relevant online resources that provide users with additional information about online safety and security, (3) be particularly sensitive to the context in which younger user’s sites are presented and avoid inappropriate juxtaposition, (4) provide clear information about how details collected in registration will be used, (5) meet their obligations in respect of the amount of personal information collected from minors at registration, including informed consent, (6) consider emphasizing, in accessible and easily understood language, ‘what behavior is and is not acceptable on the service’, (7) where possible and appropriate, request and validate personal information from users, and (8) provide warnings to users about uploading photos to their profile.

To the children and young people, the Home Office, among others, advises: (1) that particular care should be taken to ‘think before you post’ to avoid compromising privacy or safety, (2) think about who you want to see your personal information before setting up your profile, (3) do not post images of yourself posing in a sexual or provocative way.

In conclusion, social networking sites bring tremendous benefits and opportunities. Admittedly, they,however, have contributed to the problems of many teenagers across the globe. Sharing too much information and with too many ‘friends’ could be risky. Much have been done in the US and Europe to protect the children online while not in many other countries. Protecting the children is protecting our future.

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