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Beyond 'panic button' logic

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Comment The Home Office has half-heartedly claimed victory in its effort to strong-arm Facebook into publishing a child protection "panic button" on its users' profiles. In fact, the government has been given an embarrassing lesson in rationality by the leading social network.

Following a meeting with Facebook's regulation staff on Thursday, the Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced he had won a concession from the site that it had "no objection in principle" to adding the button.

Very quickly, however, it became clear Facebook had merely agreed to consider including a link to the CEOP in its user safety section.

There is already a CEOP link in Facebook's help pages, so it's unclear what practical measure the site might take, if any. CEOP and Facebook will meet on 12 April to discuss potential details.

The important point is that any link or safety section would be a long way short of the panic button on millions of UK users' profile pages demanded by CEOP's chief executive, Jim Gamble. His organisation wants to be the "central portal for helping keep children safe online".

The former Northern Ireland police intelligence chief has been campaigning for a year for Facebook to fall in line with Bebo and MSN by widely publishing the "Click CEOP" button. His public lobbying in the last two weeks had a tragic prompt, and Facebook's refusal to bow to law enforcement, political and media barracking on such a sensitive issue has made compelling viewing.

Gamble took his campaign back to the airwaves immediately after 33-year-old registered sex offender Peter Chapman was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail for the rape and murder of Ashleigh Hall. Facebook's refusal to publish his button was "beyond logic", he told Radio 4's Today. The Home Secretary quickly backed Gamble by saying he could see "no reason" for the site's intransigence.

It was a continuation of a media campaign launched by CEOP in November, which was in turn an attempt to embarrass Facebook into action after private approaches were rejected. Throughout the row, Facebook has maintained that its own reporting features for suspicious or abusive behaviour are effective.

The officially-sanctioned flare-up over Ashleigh Hall has been cynically emotional, and CEOP and the government have reacted to her appalling murder in a way that smacks of ghoulish self-interest.

CEOP panic button would have been no direct use to 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall. She did not suspect the motives of the teenage boy she thought she had met on Facebook. She would not have contacted CEOP.

CEOP has argued that the button would have more subtle impacts on child saftey online, by acting as a "deterrent" to predators, but has not offered any evidence of this.

Despite the tenuous relevance of CEOP's "panic button" Alan Johnson must have felt he had no political option but to join in the attack on Facebook. That is if he stopped to consider it.

More prescient questions over police inaction in response to Peter Chapman's failure to update the sex offenders' register when he moved house were largely obscured by the storm - a politically convenient side-effect for Johnson. The fact that Facebook has remained resolute in opposition to the panic button leaves him grasping to save face, but the press has moved on.

It's telling that as politicians or law enforcement quangos attacked Facebook, the voice making most sense belonged to Ashleigh Hall's grieving mother.

"Tell your kids to be careful on the internet," she said after the sentencing.

"Don't meet someone without telling your family where you are going. Don't trust anybody and don't put your children on Facebook or other sites if they are under age."

In the days that followed, however, Andrea Hall was drawn into the campaign to spread the panic button, arguing that social networks could "never do too much" to protect users.

It's a statement that nobody could reasonably dispute. What Facebook does dispute, and continued to dispute in robust discussion with Home Office officials last night at Privacy International's 20th anniversary, is that a panic button would protect its users. Some might argue such a highly-visible feature could send the wrong message to parents - that the web is a completely safe, monitored enviroment for children. At any rate, there is no evidence CEOP's button would do a better job than Facebook's current safety features in the general case.

Meanwhile to imply it would have protected Ashleigh Hall, or would help the next naive young person that agrees to meet someone in the real world they only know online, is beyond logic. ®

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