Green Room

Facebook’s Child Porn Subculture Baffles Executives, Challenges Parents

posted at 4:53 pm on October 26, 2010 by

(Originally posted at Newsreal Blog.)

Without doubt, the Internet has wormed its series of blissful tubes throughout our lives. It’s what we check in the morning, what we look at during the day, what entertains us at night. It provides news, products, business opportunities, conversation, relationships, self-promotion and endless distraction. An entire generation is growing up having never known a time without the Internet, while parental reaction is swinging the pendulum of opinion from luddite to addicts themselves.

One thing most involved parents will agree on is the unparalleled impact this technology has had on our kids, social networking sites in particular. With choices such as MySpace, Twitter, Xanga, Tumblr and the mother of all, Facebook–it’s rare to find an unplugged teen.

Many parents are content to simply regulate time spent online, sometimes check content to monitor behavior. But, all should be concerned about online safety. Facebook specifically bills itself as a safe site.  Yet, after a series of busts and multi-state investigations, the underbelly of both MySpace and Facebook were exposed.

While both attempted to scrub the sites of any child-exploitative material, Fox News revealed that child predators still thrive on Facebook after concluding an exclusive investigation.  Currently, the site filters content by key words that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has found to be linked to child pornography. According to “cybersecurity experts,” this should flag most offensive material found on the site. Most.

Fox reports:

During a 90-minute phone interview with Facebook spokesman Simon Axten and the company’s chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, the two executives were guided by FoxNews.com through the site’s seamy subculture – an encounter that left Sullivan sounding dumbfounded, unaware of and unable to explain the extremely graphic content on the site.

In the interview, FoxNews.com told the executives to enter “PTHC” in the website’s search box. The term “PTHC” — short for “Pre-Teen Hard Core” — is frequently found in connection with child sexual exploitation activity and materials, law enforcement officials say. Multiple sources confirmed that “PTHC” is on the NCMEC list of keywords.

You mean to tell me that perverted individuals who get their kicks from criminal sexual deviancy don’t use conspicuous tags like, “Child Porn Right Here?” I’m…not exactly shocked.

Interestingly, the term PTHC is actually on the NCMEC watch-list, yet Facebook missed that in its previous purge. Fox continues:

Having searched for “PTHC,” the two Facebook executives were then instructed to click on the first result — a public group Page called “PTHC,” with 197 members. That’s when the executives came face-to-face with a post directing users to a video purportedly featuring an 8-year-old boy being sexually abused.

Then, when asked to click on the profile of any of the group’s members, the executives were ushered into a subculture dedicated to using Facebook to traffic child pornography and to target and interact with children.

At this point, there was silence for nearly a full minute, except for the sound of furious, rapid typing. Axten and Sullivan sounded stunned, unable to explain why this happened and how their filters could have failed.

The two executives made profuse apologies, clarifications and, according to Fox, removed the offensive pages from the site after claiming to have launched an internal investigation that day.  Only…

It’s still there.

But despite their efforts, FoxNews.com found an entire underworld of widely recognized terms, code words and abbreviations on Facebook — hundreds of pages with “PTHC” and “Incest” in their titles, and many others that are unprintable. Both terms are on the NCMEC keywords list, sources said, and they were found on Facebook’s public, private, group and profile pages. Many of those pages purported to host video links to child pornography, and many had been active for months.

Ernie Allen, President of NEMEC, said there were three reasons the content would still be up: law enforcement requested it remain for investigative purposes, the content itself didn’t merit action according to Facebook’s standards, or Facebook simply hadn’t seen it. As the two executives explained:

[...] they face greater challenges than any other social networking site, many of which can be tied to the evolution of what once was a closed network for college students to a global behemoth facing real-world criminal threats. Add increasingly savvy criminals and the sheer volume of content — more than 1 billion files shared daily by its half-billion users — and the challenges grow.

Truly, with half a billion users, monitoring all content on the site would be difficult by anyone’s standards. Still, I suggest a three-pronged approach.

1. Facebook must tighten up its security. Either install a panic button for kids to quickly report a problem, monitor uploaded and linked content more carefully, or screen applications for subscription more stringently. If not, stop pretending that Facebook is an air-tight, safe site. It isn’t.

2. Law enforcement needs to track the online activity of convicted offenders, if not prohibit it entirely. Call this a draconian “violation” of “civil rights,” but if you violate the civil rights of an innocent child in any way, access to your addiction should be permanently restricted.

3. Parents, Parents, Parents. Be informed, be aware. Be in the game. Realize that the internet and all related networking is here to stay and if security remains tenuous, make decisions accordingly.

Try envisioning social networking sites as having “real-world” counterparts: a public park, a door or window through which we allow others to observe our thoughts and lives. Would we wantonly open the doors to our homes or windows of our kids’ bedrooms to anyone who might be passing by? We diligently instruct our children never to talk to strangers. Yet if we understood that the information shared on Facebook is akin to telling unknown persons in a public park the intimate details of our lives, perhaps we’d reconsider our actions.

Internet ubiquity requires our vigilance, and the unprecedented reach of Facebook itself should not be underestimated. A friend aptly described it as the riskiest venture:

It’s the most comprehensive framework of cyber-relationships to come to the internet. It surpasses chat, email, online gaming. Your entire life is put out there, your ability to express emotions, impulses, passions and reactions is optimized. The strings are there to manipulate others for those who choose to pick them up. It’s an alternate society, and it shows the darker side of people’s malevolent natures. In real life, there are consequences. Facebook bypasses that. I’m not just talking about children. I’m talking about people in general. The primary issue is that children are especially vulnerable to emotional manipulation, therefore it is even more dangerous to them.

Sobering.

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As a daily Facebook user, I say thanks, Diane, for an excellent summary of the problems, great suggestions for how to fix them, & good advice for parents.

itsnotaboutme on October 26, 2010 at 5:19 PM

itsnotaboutme on October 26, 2010 at 5:19 PM

Thank you, although I wasn’t that thorough. I was asked to cover the story and given that I’m a Facebook refugee and a parent of two young children unfamiliar with the site, I did the best I could. Lord knows what it’ll be like when they’re plugged in.

It does appear to be a systemic problem the site has, actually. A teen might have a private profile but “like” something and comment on another group’s wall which is being monitored/groomed by predators (according to the investigation). Doesn’t seem to be something easily controlled without changing the structure itself.

Bee on October 26, 2010 at 5:32 PM

I f**king hate Facebook.

MadisonConservative on October 26, 2010 at 5:41 PM

I was listening to a father on the radio. His 13 year old daughter ran off to Vegas with a 22 year old man. The spin was that he did everything right to protect his daughter but frankly, that was total b.s. Really bad parenting. Sometimes, I wonder how parents can be so clueless.

Blake on October 26, 2010 at 6:03 PM

As long as we pretend that people who prey on children can be changed nothing will be done. Parents also need to stop worrying about their children’s privacy and worry more about their safety.

katiejane on October 26, 2010 at 6:25 PM

Ernie Allen, President of NEMEC, said there were three reasons the content would still be up: law enforcement requested it remain for investigative purposes, the content itself didn’t merit action according to Facebook’s standards, or Facebook simply hadn’t seen it.

Law enforcement requested it to remain for investigative purposes. I have a very hard time believing that the executives at Facebook and law enforcement are stupid enough to miss something like this.

Mike Honcho on October 27, 2010 at 11:43 AM