Facebook Locks Up Its User Safety With Global Advisory Board

facebook safety

Facebook's press release this morning sounds pretty humdrum on the face of it—"Facebook to Enhance User Safety Through Formation of Global Advisory Board" isn't much of an eye-grabber. But it's actually really, good news. Mostly.

Facebook's calling the formation of the Facebook Safety Advisory Board the "latest step in its commitment to improve safety on Facebook and across the Web," and given its recent moves to adjust its privacy policy and the tweaks it made after official Canadian criticism that's certainly true. The idea is to gather the advice and expertise of five "leading Internet safety organizations from North America and Europe"—Common Sense Media, ConnectSafely, WiredSafety, Childnet International, and the Family Online Safety Institute—into one body. Facebook will regularly have a dialog with the board to verify and tweak its already-implemented privacy and safety procedures as well as developing new best-practices as the Facebook service expands its capabilities in the Future.

First up is to overhaul the safety advice in the Help Center, and then ultimately to create a comprehensive resource with "specific educational content for parents, teachers and teens." And that's great news (especially given the slightly Homer Simpson-like thinking of some Facebook users). Given recent revelations that Facebook's membership included a large number of registered sex offenders—not surprisingly beating out that ailing MySpace—it's even better news. The idea of better educating Facebook users, particularly young ones, about online safety is unquestionably good. And the goal of teaching adults about the safety of kids in their charge is great too.

But that's where this move by Facebook gets a bit tricky. Because there's a highly reactionary feeling about online safety among parents and educational workers, on the whole. It's the same sort of paranoia that the "stranger danger" movement stirred up in the '80s and '90s—a social movement that's resulted, in part, in kids not playing outside in the same way anymore, and parents driving their kids to school in greater numbers, creating traffic and environmental chaos. And it was largely based on myth and fear—as Penn and Teller have controversially pointed out.

Online safety is hugely important, don't get me wrong, and with hundreds of millions of users, Facebook has a responsibility to make sure it gets things right. But if the advisory board gets too big for its boots, Facebook may end up making changes that restrict the site for the worse for everyone, or instill an artificial sense of risk in young users. The socially positive potential of social networking is immense, and it should be celebrated: Facebook just needs to tread a fine line between safety and sanity, and make sure it doesn't lock up too much potential or create a sense of fear about its services. Stick to educating overly-worried and under-informed adults about the real issues, Facebook, that would be my advice.

[Via Facebook]

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  • Francesco Wesel

    There can be no doubt that online safety is of fundamental importance for a social networking site. In the German speaking market (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), the social media market leader has ever since been a site called StudiVz. In terms of its functions and user groups, this platform seems like a copy of Facebook adapted to the local market conditions.

    About two years ago, negative press about personal information being passed to third parties have led to a fundamental shift in the highly private sphere wary German consumer market. All of a sudden, users changed to invented profile names on the site and by that taking the essence from the tool- to find each other and connect. The medium suffered irreparable damage by these shifts. It appears to be only a matter of time until Facebook will take over market leadership.

    Now, could this scenario happen to Facebook as well? I don’t think so. There have been similar issues about privacy in the past, but it does not seem to affect the US user environment. In spite of a high general awareness of potential misuse of private data, people still keep posting highly personal information as well as pictures on the site. There seems to be a large difference in consumer culture regarding private sphere.

    With Facebook expanding largely internationally and soon reaching 350,000,000 users, these consumer insights undoubtedly have to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, the company has be careful not to create more problems than before through the enhancement of safety standards. First of all, the security deficit might not be perceived as such by the current Facebook audience. Large-scale PR announcements might therefore evoke an unnecessary suspiciousness among users: “What is wrong with the current Facebook security structure?” Secondly, the past has shown that users are highly attached to the current system of the site and any changes in layout have usually led to a large uproar.

    Facebook therefore has to carefully think about how to go about changes in its safety standards as well as how to communicate them. There has to be a fine balance in being more appealing to international markets without jeopardizing its value in its home market.

    Francesco Wesel
    Integrated Marketing Communication

  • Kit Eaton

    @Chris. Good points. The career-damage thing from Facebook photos though... that needs *society* to be educated as a whole. One's private life is one's private life, and for companies to pretend that isn't the case, and their employees are 100% corporate grey-suits 24/7/365 is a sad reflection on overly-corporate and prudish thinking.

  • Chris Reich

    Education about Internet safety is not just a Facebook policy problem. Nor is Internet safety an age specific problem.

    Kids are hunted by sexual predators, true enough. But as we've seen in recent cases, kids can be driven to suicide by other kids because of Internet harassment.

    Young adults are experiencing career damage from images showing up online depicting them in less than flattering, or maybe too flattering, positions.

    The middle-agers get sapped by the numerous pharmacy scams. And seniors are taken by phishing schemes.

    I'd like to see a board formed to look at the whole system and offer suggestions and educational white papers to both both industry and consumer Internet users.

    Chris Reich