Last October, Ashleigh Hall, a 17-year-old British student, told her mother she was staying at a friend's house and instead arranged to meet a teenage boy she had been messaging with on Facebook. She never returned the next morning. The teenage boy turned out to be a 32-year-old serial sex offender, Peter Chapman, who raped and murdered Hall and dumped her body in a ditch. Chapman eventually confessed to the crimes and was jailed for life last month.
In the wake of Hall's murder, the teenager's family was joined by British child protection advocates in demanding that Facebook install a so-called "panic button" on its pages — a box that people could click to immediately access information about Internet safety topics such as cyber-stalking and sexual abuse. Jim Gamble, head of Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP), even made a personal appeal to Facebook executives to install such a feature on a trip to Washington earlier this week. "It's like a burglar alarm on your house: it tells anyone coming into that environment to engage with you that you're protected," he says. Proponents also note that other social-networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo already have panic buttons on their sites and question why Facebook hasn't followed suit.
Despite such mounting criticism, Facebook has maintained that its abuse reporting system is adequate enough. But on Tuesday, the company did an about-face and said it was introducing a revised safety system for its 23 million users in the U.K., which will allow members to report abuse and cyber-bullying directly to Britain's CEOP center instead of just through Facebook's internal system. Now, when British Facebook users click on the "Report/Block This Person" tab, a pop-up box will appear providing a link to the CEOP site. Prior to the change, CEOP had to rely on the U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to relay abuse claims that British minors had filed with Facebook. But while the social-networking giant agreed to install the additional pop-up box, it has resisted calls to embed an actual panic button. "If the proposal is that we should put the button on every single page of the website, we're quite clear that that isn't the quick-fix solution that will actually make users of Facebook safer than they are today," says Richard Allan, director of European public policy for Facebook.
Some critics have echoed those reservations, saying that a panic button wouldn't be any more effective at stopping cyber-predators than Facebook's current procedures. "The panic button really isn't a panic button at all," says Parry Aftab, the New York-based head of the website wiredsafety.org and a lawyer who specializes in Internet privacy and security law. "It's not a cyber 911, it is a link to Internet safety materials when things go wrong. It's not a report to police, it just instructs you to call the police if you suspect a crime has been committed." Aftab also doubts that a panic button would increase abuse reporting because many times youngsters don't realize they're in danger when they're involved in risky online situations. "These kids go willingly to a meeting where they don't know the person," Aftab says. "It's fun and thrills; they say, 'Sure other people get hurt but not me.' They just think they're the exception."
Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a group dedicated to Internet safety education, says that while the idea of a panic button is a step in the right direction, its current incarnation might be off the mark. "I think that having a report abuse button is a good idea, but I don't think the word 'panic button' is appropriate," Magid wrote in an e-mail. "Also I don't think we need a government mandated panic button that's the same for all users." Both Aftab and Magid say the company's current safety efforts are as effective as they can be. "If we can come up with one button that's great, but until we teach them [Facebook users] how to protect themselves they're all at risk," Aftab says.
To help educate users, Facebook also revamped its online safety center on Tuesday, organizing its safety information into categories for parents, teachers and teens to make the portal a "cleaner, more navigable interface," Facebook's chief security officer Joe Sullivan wrote on the company's blog. Facebook spokeswoman Debbie Frost says the company is also donating ad space worth $7.7 million to different cybersafety groups over the next two years. But beyond panic buttons, abuse reporting systems and advertisements, much more needs to be done to educate people about online safety. "There's a cultural change that needs to happen," Frost says. "In the same way you don't talk to strangers, it should be the same online. Education and awareness need to come into it and you need to tell young women to be a little suspicious. All those lessons you learn in life need to be transferred online."