Social networks put minors at risk, EU warns

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The European institutions launched a campaign yesterday (9 February) to raise awareness of the threats posed by social networking websites such as Facebook for minors under 18. Meanwhile, a new report highlights new risks associated with mobile social networking.

The majority of Europe's youngsters who go online are regular users of social networking sites such as Facebook, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll.

However, European teenagers are barely aware of the privacy issues raised by such websites, according to EU figures, and 50% of them do not hesitate to give out personal information on the Web, which can remain online forever and can be seen by anybody.

Posting photos online of what may have been an unforgettably fun moment with friends may have consequences in future years, warned Viviane Reding, the incoming EU commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, on European Safer Internet Day in Strasbourg.

For example, she said, a potential employer may visit such websites when considering a job application years after the photos were posted.

Indeed, almost half of European recruiters seek information on potential candidates using online social networks and almost a quarter have rejected candidacies on the basis of their research, according to a survey released in January (EURACTIV 01/02/10).

'Think before you post' campaign

To address naive usage of social networks, the EU institutions launched the 'Think before you post' campaign to raise awareness of the risks of sharing personal information with strangers.

"Networking websites are the first to which this campaign is addressed," underlined Commissioner Reding. "If we want children to think before they post, social networking companies should post the right information using the right language," she said.

Although social networks have shown willingness to address privacy issues, the Commission is worried about many shortfalls which still prevent minors on social networking platforms from having a completely safe experience, according to a report published by the EU executive yesterday (9 February).

Roberta Angelilli, vice-president of the European Parliament and representative of the European Forum on the Rights of the Child, warned that many social networks allow easy access to information about underaged users, often simply by using a search engine.

Facebook, which is the biggest social network in Europe, has come under attack for not fully protecting minors, whose profiles are accessible by default (EURACTIV 09/02/10).

Contacted by EURACTIV, the California-based firm did not give details of its privacy policy. However, on its official webpage, the company says users can always adjust their privacy settings themselves. It does not set the highest privacy protection by default.

New risks of mobile social networks

It is estimated that by 2012 almost 20% of mobile phone subscribers will use their handsets to access social networks. In absolute terms, this means more than 800 million mobile social network users worldwide.

The risks of social networks are multiplied in a mobile environment where communications are so fast that they are almost instantaneous. A posted photo featuring illegal content can immediately be circulated across an increasingly mobile Web, multiplying the risk of dangers and annoyances.

In France, a policeman posted on his Facebook profile a video featuring the assault of a bus passenger. Within a few hours, the video was circulating across social networks worldwide, causing double damage to the victim, who was clearly identifiable.

The policeman has been accused of breaching secrecy rules for investigation procedures, although he removed the video soon after it was posted.

Not only do mobile social networks make everything faster, they also allow users to be located more easily, explains a report issued by ENISA, the EU agency for network and information security.

Maps provided on mobile phones allow users to find and locate their friends and get directions to places, but this poses new threats to privacy or even security, the agency warned.

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A social networking site is a website on which users can post personal information. It resembles a blog, but with the added value of providing tools for developing interaction with other users and filters to determine who has access to the information. However, few users actually use filters, and minors are among those least likely to do so.

Networking websites are booming. In December 2008, 211 million Europeans above the age of 15 visited a social networking site such as Facebook. Regular users amount to over 50 million in the EU, 35% more than in 2008. Many predict that by 2012 the number of regular social network users in Europe will double to 107 million.

Faced with this widespread social phenomenon, the European Commission has shown growing interest in protecting citizens and consumers' privacy. Social networking websites have been singled out on many occasions as potentially dangerous for inexpert users.

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding endorsed this line, pushing the major actors in the sector to adopt a code of conduct aimed at protecting young users (EURACTIV 10/02/09). In her confirmation hearing in the European Parliament in January, she confirmed her stance and threatened further action to protect privacy in her new role as EU commissioner in charge of data protection issues.

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