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The looser the filters, the more the need for the most sophisticated monitoring tools, like those employed at Facebook and those offered by independent companies such as the UK's Crisp Thinking, which works for Lego, Electronic Arts, and Sony Corp's online entertainment unit, among others.
They can also alienate some of a site's target audience - especially teen users who expect more freedom of expression.'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.
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.
A solid system for defending against online predators requires both oversight by trained employees and intelligent software that not only searches for improper communication but also analyzes patterns of behavior, experts said.
Things like too many 'unrequited' messages, or those that go unresponded to, also factor in, because they correlate with spamming or attempts to groom in quantity, as does analysis of the actual chats of convicted pedophiles.
Barring a wave of costly litigation or new laws, it is hard to see the protections getting much tougher, experts said.
From a business perspective, however, there are powerful reasons not to be so restrictive, starting with teen expectations of more freedom of expression as they age.
If they don't find it on one site, they will somewhere else.
As a result, many threats are eliminated without human intervention and moderators at the company are notified later.
Sites that operate with such software still should have one professional on safety patrol for every 2,000 users online at the same time, said Sacramento-based Metaverse Mod Squad, a moderating service.
Sulake said it had kept 225 moderators and is still investigating what went wrong.
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.