New York Forces Facebook to Police User Content

Facebook has “voluntarily” agreed to warn users about explicit images and redouble its efforts to combat obscenity as part of a settlement with Andrew Cuomo, the Attorney General of New York. While Facebook stood with Cuomo in announcing its new policy, it was under pressure to act. Had Facebook resisted, regulators would’ve gotten a lot less friendly.

Facebook will inform users that it doesn’t guarantee its pages are free from obscene content or predators. But why would parents assume a user-driven site like Facebook is a safe haven from sexual deviants or explicit images? It’s no secret that social networking websites are ripe for predators, but common sense and good parenting are the best ways to protect children. Basic online tips like not giving out personal details are crucial steps for protection, and the web is full of advice for parents on keeping kids safe.

Facebook will now screen content and act swiftly in response to complaints about obscenity. Compliance costs will increase, and this policy shift will have a chilling effect on legitimate speech. As we’ve witnessed with YouTube, when websites try too hard to screen content, lots of perfectly appropriate material falls through the cracks.

While young children are vulnerable, there are many ways–often more effective ways–to shield them from obscenity besides government intervention. Concerned parents should keep an eye on their kids or consider filtering software like NetNanny to block inappropriate content. Facebook has long offered advanced privacy features, and users can prevent anyone outside their circle of friends from viewing their profile.

This is another instance of government usurping the proper role of parents. Instead of teaching kids to be net savvy and vigilant, parents clamor for government to step in–but regulations are coercive and crowd out market solutions, while parents can send a message to their kids tailored to their own values.