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(Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
(Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Can social media ever be made safe from sex predators? Add to ...

On March 9 of this year, a piece of Facebook software spotted something suspicious.

A man in his early thirties was chatting about sex with a 13-year-old South Florida girl and planned to meet her after middle-school classes the next day.

Facebook’s extensive but little-discussed technology for scanning postings and chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for employees, who read it and quickly called police.

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Officers took control of the teenager’s computer and arrested the man the next day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The alleged predator has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.

“The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible,” said Mr. Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries.

Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators. Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles’ online chats to teach the software what to seek out.

Yet even though defensive techniques are now available and effective they can be expensive. They can also alienate some of a site’s target audience – especially teen users who expect more freedom of expression. While many top sites catering to young children are quite vigilant, the same can’t be said for the burgeoning array of online options for the 13- to 18-year-old set.

“There are companies out there that are doing a very good job, working within the confines of what they have available,” said Brooke Donahue, a supervisory special agent with an FBI team devoted to Internet predators and child pornography. “There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability.”

Two recent incidents are raising new questions about companies’ willingness to invest in safety.

Last month the maker of a smartphone app called Skout, designed for flirtation with strangers in the same area, admitted its use had led to sexual assaults on three teenagers by adults. The venture-backed firm had not verified that users of its now-shuttered teen section were under 20, giving predators easy access.

Also in June, a teen-oriented virtual world called Habbo Hotel, which boasts hundreds of millions of registered users, temporarily blocked all chatting after U.K. television reported that two sex predators had found victims on the site and that a journalist posing as an 11-year-old girl was bombarded with explicit remarks and requests that she disrobe on webcam.

Former employees said site owner Sulake of Finland laid off many in-house workers earlier this year, leaving it unable to moderate 70 million lines of daily chat adequately. Sulake said it had kept 225 moderators and is still investigating what went wrong.

The failures at Skout and Habbo shocked child-safety experts and technology professionals, who fear they will lead to a renewed panic about online safety that is not justified by the data.

By some measures, Internet-related sex crimes against children have always been rare and are now falling (as are reports of assaults on minors that do not involve the Net). Most sex crimes against children are committed by people the children know, rather than strangers.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processed 3,638 reports of online “enticement” of children by adults last year, down from 4,053 in 2010 and 5,759 in 2009.

Even those companies with state-of-the-art defenses spend far more time trying to stop online bullying and attempts to sneak profanity past automatic word filters than they do fending off sex predators.

Still, as the Skout case showed, there are several recent trends that have heightened the concerns of child-safety experts: the rise of smartphones, which are harder for parents to monitor; location-oriented services, which are the darling of Net companies seeking more ad revenue from local businesses; and the rapid proliferation in phone and tablet apps, which don’t always make clear what data they are using and distributing.

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