After a girl goes missing, is Netlog doing all it can to protect children on its site?

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Netlog, which at 33 million users is possibly continental Europe’s biggest social network, could be open to criticism in the way it deals with minors on its site.

A girl of 15 who was feared to have fled to Turkey to meet two men who befriended her on Netlog was yesterday found in Belgium. She went missing from her home in Wales six days ago. Nia Witts, from Penglais, Aberystwyth, was regularly communicating with both men, who are aged 19 and 20, through Netlog, reports the Daily Mirror today. The paper says one of the pair was pictured on the site holding a gun.

The back-story to this is that she had told them she was 18 (the story doesn’t say if her online profile was set to that age or not), which technically puts the site in the clear in terms of its practicies for protecting minors.

However, I registered on Netlog today as a late 30s male and found it incredibly easy to search for and contact minors, crucially, by age and location.

Netlog operates in a similar fashion to MySpace. You do not need to be logged in to see a person’s profile or their friends. However, to message them you need to log in or register, which takes under a minute.

Netlog makes it possible to filter search results on profiles to quite a fine degree. And I could easily whittle search results down by gender, age and even location, down to postcode. This is something the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre recommends against. A spokesperson told me: “Location and postcode would be concerning. You could easily identify a street where a user was.”

I found the profile of a girl of 13 and although she had set her privacy settings so that I could not live chat with her, I could send private messages and sign her guestbook (for the record, I did not do this).

In Netlog’s defense, the site provides obvious tools to block someone, and report abuse. It may also be that the child in question has adjusted the messaging settings so that anyone can message them, regardless of age.

I have contacted Netlog’s spokesperson to ask them to clarify their policy on child protection and will update this post with their response.

Co-founder Lorenz Bogaert, and ceo said: “There is a lot of pervention prevention just by informing the users. The site does not automatically showing people outside of your own age group unless the the people you can see are setting their privacy settings to “public”. The user can completely define what privacy they want. I can say who can see me, who can visit profile or even who can visit from my own class or school etc. Or just my age group. By default for minors the privacy setting sare quite restrictive. The privacy setting is on the highest level.”

Bogaert said during the registration process you can click one of two big buttoms. “I want to network with existing friends” makes privacy settings default to high. “I want to meet new people” sets privacy settings low and makes the profile public. The user can adjust it afterwards. The postcode is not shown as default.

He said Netlog had based its service after consulting with child protection agencies and charities like Child focus. “We do all we can to prevent any abuse. If there is more we can do we are adding on a daily basis. But we can’t control things when people lie about their age.”

Speaking off the record, a UK-based expert on social media and children looked at Netlog for me. She said that a user can customise the individual settings and opt out of the site search. But they would need to know to look for them. It also appears that Netlog does not have any e-safety guidance.

“It isn’t good practice to facilitate age-related search, and I know the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre are interested in services that provide this… Industry best practice is to default these for under 16s or under 18s to private, so that the young person has to consciously switch to public… I think the lesson really is – new, crappy services are constantly springing up so it is essential to ensure children and young people are equipped to take care of themselves online, what ever services they end up using.”

The UK-Based Child International charity recommends that all default settings on social networks should be set to “private”.

Netlog, which is headquartered in Ghent, Belgium and operates across multiple markets in Europe, is backed by Index Ventures which invested €5 million in a Series A round in April 2007.

Netlog has 4.5 million users in the UK but it’s biggests markets are Italy , Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

  • babul

    Blocking/privacy problem is by nature inherently against the nature of social networks.

    The only real answer short of iplementing semenatic rules (so kids cannot accept request from older people, and also communication language is analaysed to assess age etc. which have proven not to work really) is having subset only networks (just for kids) that are self policed by the kids?

  • Luke Stanley

    Wow, I stayed in Penglais, Aberystwyth. Brings it closer to home.
    But the fact of the matter is: Kids WILL meet (usually not abroad).Parents need to know: physical protection is their responsibility. meetups need security planning, just in case: its like a hostage transfer in movies. What would Jack Bauer advise to kids meeting up, that WILL meet up?

    “Child International charity recommends that all default settings on social networks should be set to ‘private'”

    They clearly haven’t tried to run a startup. Viral lead-ins are critical, minimum effort is critical. I’m fed up with charities giving bad advice, if you don’t take the smart middle ground, no one will listen to you.

    Also, we could just make digital interaction more immersive.

  • Prdo

    I’m not surprised this is a Belgian start-up. They have lots of pedophiles there. That, and chocolate. And why does Index Venture invest in such a company?

    Here you go:

  • headless

    “Co-founder Lorenz Bogaert, and ceo said: “There is a lot of pervention”.

    Pervention, eh? An unfortunate slip of the finger perhaps?

  • Clunky Flow » Online predator/prey relationships: a youth is its own worst enemy

    […] Mike Butcher just written a post about the case of a 15 year-old Welsh girl getting herself into what could have been a very dangerous situation as a result of a relationship she developed with two men via the social network Netlog.The rest of Mike’s piece explores Netlog’s role and responsibility with regard to this drama. […]

  • Tony H

    If you know how to write advanced search queries, it’s quite easily to tunnel into eg myspace profiles from a google search…. site: and intitle: will get you a long way…

  • Nic Brisbourne

    Hi Mike – without for a second suggesting we should let up on services implementing best practice with regard to child protection, I would like to see more emphasis on self protection, with children and parents being taught of the dangers and how to avoid them. In the final analysis this is the only way to keep people safe, and also to benefit the sites that do protect our minors.

  • TechCrunch UK » Blog Archive » Netlog launching language translation for developers

    […] back in August a girl of 15 who was feared to have fled to Turkey to meet two men who befriended her on Netlog, was eventually found by police safe in […]

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