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Users could be unnerved about the extent to which their conversations are reviewed, at least by computer programs.'We've never wanted to set up an environment where we have employees looking at private communications, so it's really important that we use technology that has a very low false-positive rate,' he said.In addition, Facebook doesn't probe deeply into what it thinks are pre-existing relationships.

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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.Another pillar in Facebook's strategy is to limit how those under 18 can interact on the site and to make it harder for adults to find them.Minors don't show up in public searches, only friends of friends can send them Facebook messages, and only friends can chat with them.Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries, said: 'The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible.'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.Technology is available for verifying the ages of Web and app users.

One of the providers is Aristotle International Inc, which offers a variety of methods, including having a parent vouch for a child and make a token payment with a credit card to establish the parent's identity.

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.

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.

'There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability.'Also in June, a teen-oriented virtual world called Habbo Hotel, which boasts hundreds of millions of registered users, temporarily blocked all chatting after UK 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.