Facing up to grown-up responsibilities

Facebook has 400 million users. How responsible is it for the behaviour of its growing number of vandals and thugs?
Alex Perrottet | 13 March 2010
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Whatever happens in real life happens quicker on Facebook.  Only six years after it began, Facebook already has a criminal underclass. The latest entry on the charge sheets comes from Australia where vandals defaced tribute pages to murdered children.

Elliot Fletcher, a 12-year old schoolboy, was stabbed to death at a Brisbane school last month. Shocking photos and comments were quickly added to the site and only taken down after an uproar. Only days later, vandals struck the tribute page of Trinity Bates, a little girl who had been abducted and murdered.

The Australian Communications Minister sent a “please explain” note to Facebook. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh wrote a letter (that’s so last millennium!) to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking Facebook to stop tribute pages being vandalized.

Facebook is self-policing. Its users are encouraged to complain if they see something hateful or defamatory. Its managers remove offensive material as soon as they become aware of it. What these Australian cases suggest is that this may not be enough. Some countries may think that Facebook is responsible for ensuring that offensive material is never posted in the first place.

This is going to be tough.

It takes daring to vandalise with a spray can, but it takes much less guts to vandalise someone's Facebook wall. Now while it can be cleaned up fairly easily, the trick is how to find it and remove it quickly enough. Just as city councils employ graffiti removers, perhaps governments should employ full-time e-graffiti busters, who search and destroy all day long. Facebook is worth $11 billion USD and employs 1000 people to develop the site and monitor its 400 million users. Surely it could employ a few more people.

There is little legal consensus about the new “continent” that Facebook has been described as. An Italian court recently convicted Google executives for hosting a video of boys taunting a boy with Down’s syndrome. The conviction stood, albeit with suspended sentences, even though Google took action and had removed the video when alerted to it.

This is a much higher standard of responsibility than for those in the real world. Would a council be convicted for not reacting quickly enough to offensive graffiti on a billboard? Or what about a mobile phone carrier for allowing threats and offensive messages to be sent over its network?

The legal grey area is growing and the issue is that the people faced with the decisions are growing grey. They aren’t as speedy as the young IT-savvy users. There’s a ‘techno-legal lag’ and the lag is getting longer. The Australians are moving more cautiously than the Italians on this issue and are considering appointing an online ombudsman. However Australia is leading the legal field by broadening the definition of service of court documents. An Australian court upheld the serving of documents to be validly effected through Facebook, and then a New Zealand court clicked “like” and followed suit.

Cyber-vandalism is one problem to be solved. What about contempt of court?

There is concern about the proliferation of Facebook comments, groups and pages that form and collect public opinion about crimes, thereby placing criminal trials in jeopardy. An Australian academic recently questioned how the State could deliver justice to those accused of crimes and in front of a jury possibly misled by passionate public sentiment stirred up through a Facebook group.

The immediacy of the internet, along with the potential anonymity of users provides a lethal cocktail. Repeat sex offender Peter Chapman was jailed for life in the UK this week after admitting that he killed a 15-year old girl he had groomed deceptively via Facebook, by posing as a boy. Should Facebook guarantee the identities of its users?

Certainly lawmakers can do more to assist the identification of criminals online. Late last year, the state of New York enabled the booting of 3,533 convicted sex offenders off Facebook and MySpace through its 2008 Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators Act (e-STOP) law. However good this may be to prevent further offences, it doesn’t stop them being dangerous predators in the first place.

The whole area of privacy is intriguing, as many are surprisingly lax with what they share. Most people are happy to sign away their privacy, clicking “Agree to Terms and Conditions” without even reading them. They are carefree with their Facebook photos, even though they know that any photo they are in can be seen by all sorts of third parties including parents, teachers and possible future employees.

For instance, by posting photos of herself with a new lover, a British lady prompted her ex-boyfriend to allegedly board a plane from Trinidad and stab her to death.

Last year, a US medical technician was called to a crime scene. He took photos of the murder victim and posted them on Facebook. He was fired. An Israeli raid on a village in Gaza was recently called off after an Israeli soldier shared the information about the place and time of the raid on Facebook. He was later court-marshaled and suspended. Before the digital revolution, a newspaper could have been fined or even closed for publishing material which endangered national security. Why not Facebook?

And how about addiction? Courts have held that owners of pubs and bars have some responsibility for their patrons’ behaviour after leaving the premises. If they serve someone who is obviously inebriated and he kills someone in his car going home, the bartender, in some jurisdictions, shares responsibility. Now consider this: a couple was recently arrested in South Korea for letting their own child starve to death at home while they spent long hours each day nurturing a virtual child in a nearby internet café.

A website like Facebook works hard to make using it as addictive as possible. Is it responsible for any of the consequences of that addiction? And what if criminals use information gleaned from Facebook to commit crimes? Is Facebook an accessory?

Up to now, Facebook has worn its civic responsibilities pretty lightly. Its Privacy Policy clearly states: “We will not share your information with advertisers without your consent. We allow advertisers to select characteristics of users they want to show their advertisements to and we use the information we have collected to serve those advertisements.”

But Facebook basically only makes money if it shares its users’ information with advertisers. So it is constantly trying to both confuse and entice users into disclosing as much as possible. This built-in conflict of interest was responsible for Facebook’s most notorious error of judgment: Beacon.

In 2007 Facebook launched a new application called Beacon which basically posted individual’s web browsing activities in the “News Feed” on their wall for all to see. Without any notice to users, Beacon was an opt-out system and caused outrage. Eventually Facebook apologized and changed to an opt-in system.

Advertisers are falling over each other to pat Mark Zuckerberg on the back. This week Zuckerberg was named Media Person of the Year at the 57th Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. They are obviously more than happy with the work he is doing. But should users be happy?

It’s time for Facebook to grow up. Mark Zuckerberg has created a powerful tool for social interaction. But with great power comes great responsibility. Is Facebook ready?

Alex Perrottet is a freelance journalist in Auckland, New Zealand.

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