Facebook, Grooming and the Regulatory Mix
From the Guardian 09/03/10:
Senior police officers clashed with the UK's most-used social networking site today, accusing Facebook of ignoring worrying trends that it is providing a safe haven for predatory paedophiles by refusing to sign up to a "panic button" for children and young people.
Jim Gamble, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Unit (Ceop), was joined by the country's lead officer on homicide to tackle the site about its repeated refusal to sign up to a key safety practice adopted by many other similar websites.
The American-owned site has 23 million active users in the UK but refuses to display an official "panic button" that links users directly to Ceop to report suspected activities by predatory paedophiles.
Chapman, a convicted double rapist, posed as a young man called Peter Cartwright on Facebook and spent time grooming Ashleigh before the pair exchanged mobile phone numbers and agreed to meet. Ashleigh was raped and suffocated by Chapman, who dumped her body in a field near Sedgefield in County Durham last October.
Facebook has refused repeated requests by Ceop to include a panic button on its site. Information from the button is used to build intelligence reports on suspects which can become part of police investigations into paedophiles, rapists and violent individuals.
User education is key here. I’ve propounded the idea for greater use of panic button functionality before but that’s only part of the story.
Young, naive users are doing exactly what Ashleigh Hall did all the time. Re-examining the dangers of social networking at a grass roots level is what is needed – and exactly why I’ve been calling for online safety to be made part of PSE (or whatever it’s called in schools now) for ages.
There are also greater societal and parental issues brought into stark focus by cases like this – and better education of the risks is crucial here, too.
A more pro-active, ex ante means of regulating these situations must start with user education. While other elements of the regulatory mix can be added into the pot – such as code and law, from a Lessigian standpoint - a strong foundation of user education remains vital.
While profiling stalkers and groomers is a very important cog in the overall regulatory machine, over-reliance on it can also result in the ‘Fisher-Price Fallacy’ – the false sense of security that users are lured into by cloaking technology from which potentially serious harm can flow with a benign and innocent user interface. ‘Bad’ or ‘false’ security is worse than no security at all.
If user education breeds good judgement in society, that has got to be made a number one priority. Otherwise tragic stories like this will continue unchecked.