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

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.