Sun's Facebook-slapping hits wrong target
Paedo-threat coverage risks more restrictions for all
Comment A series of negative stories about Facebook by The Sun newspaper could lead to yet more government intervention directing how individuals are allowed to interact with the internet.
The Sun has seen a host of anti-Facebook stories run over the last 12 months, paralleled by positive coverage of near-rival, MySpace.
Last week, under the heading "Disgracebook", The Sun reported the tragic story of Ashleigh Hall, aged 17, who allegedly met her end after meeting an individual she befriended through Facebook.
The Sun quoted Ashleigh’s mother, Andrea, as saying: "It is time somebody introduced controls which stop people putting up false information. The people who run Facebook have a responsibility."
This is then followed by an expert highlighting the problem of paedophiles creating false profiles on social networking sites, and reports that Facebook and Twitter are the only major social networking sites not members of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which they further claim "attempts to police the web and monitors content it considers dangerous."
Finally, they reference an earlier story claiming Twitter had refused to censor child porn on its site.
In a follow-up piece this week, The Sun reported that Facebook was now applying to join the IWF. Headlined "The Sun gets website to call in ‘net cops’", it is clear that The Sun is claiming a victory in this case.
Much of this appears to miss the point - but by sensationalising the story and linking it to solutions that do not apply, The Sun opens the way for populist political intervention.
An example of how this pressure may work lies with the campaign for "Sarah's Law" - a demand that parents of young children be allowed to know about the identity of paedophiles in their area. Whilst this campaign, spearheaded by the Sun's sister paper, the News of the World, has had limited success, it has without doubt contributed to political initiatives around data sharing in this area.
The IWF is not an internet police force. As they have made clear in countless interviews, their role in the UK is twofold. First, where they encounter certain categories of (mainly child abuse) material hosted on a UK site, they refer it to the appropriate authorities – usually the relevant police force - for further action.
Where material is hosted overseas and it potentially breaks UK law, they add the URL for the page containing that material to its block list, and then feed it out through the majority of UK ISP’s. The offending image is blocked irrespective of whether the site hosting it has "joined" the IWF.
The IWF role in respect of social networking sites is limited. They would be the first to admit that their success in removing indecent content from fixed URL’s has seen those with an interest in such material moving on to virtual networks or, even on to social networking sites such as Facebook.
The task of policing this form of communication sits squarely with the UK’s Child Exploitation Online Protection Unit (CEOP). The Sun reported that Twitter have so far refused to host CEOP’s alert button – but Twitter are certainly not alone in this as our understanding is that to date no social networking sites have taken up this offer.
In respect of Twitter, The Sun’s expert, ex-cop Mark Williams-Thomas claimed: "The problem is nobody is policing Twitter and nobody has woken up to the fact it is being exploited by paedophiles.
"Twitter should be monitoring their pages to make sure this doesn't happen. But they are not."
However, it remains unclear how Twitter’s failure to join the IWF is relevant to this alleged problem. If users identify indecent images on site, they are free to report them to the IWF.
The IWF are keen to sign up new members – even where there is less scope for an individual company to take action against paedophiles using its services. A spokeswoman for the IWF said: "[we] can help organisations protect their networks and services from being abused, protect their customers from being exposed to criminal content, can act as a point of expertise, and facilitate liaison with law enforcement bodies and other key partners."
For this reason, Facebook and the IWF have been in talks about Facebook joining the IWF for some months – not, as the Sun implies, since their story last week – and Facebook’s membership application is due to come up at the IWF’s board in December.
A quick search of the Sun website highlights a long list of anti-Facebook stories. One active LibDem blogger last year did a comparison of positive Facebook and positive MySpace stories in The Sun. The result was 15 per cent for the former – and 93 per cent for the latter.
Stories this year include "Facebook killer boast teen jailed" and "'Kill message' on Facebook" – not to mention copious references to "Facebook Monster" and "Facebook perv" in reporting the recent case of child abuse carried out by a paedophile ring that had met up via Facebook. ®
The Sun and social networking site MySpace are both part of News Corp. Facebook is not.