Facebook's New 'Panic Button' Misses the Point

panic button

The British are a lot like Americans, or vice versa I guess, in our shared tendency to become so concerned about sensational threats that we formulate useless safeguards just to say we did something. The threat posed to children by online sex predators is an alarming issue on both sides of the Atlantic, providing news media with plenty of lurid fodder. This has prompted Facebook to offer a new "panic button" to UK users, which I can imagine showing up in the U.S. at some point. The only problem, as noted, is that it completely misses the point.

Under pressure from UK regulators and public opinion, Facebook is adding a button which allows children and teenage users to contact Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, the UK's national anti-child abuse hotline. The "ClickCeop" button is an optional app which young users can add to their profiles, allowing them to alert the child protection authorities to "grooming or inappropriate sexual behaviors" by adults, as well as cyber-bullying and sexual harassment by peers. Facebook agreed to begin offering the ClickCeop app after other online social networks, including Bebo and MySpace, complied under government pressure.

As usual, the new safety initiative seems to be as much about soothing over-anxious parents as actually protecting anyone. Remarks by Jim Gamble, chief executive of the CEOP Centre, certainly convey that feeling: "By adding this application, Facebook users will have direct access to all the services that sit behind our ClickCeop button which should provide reassurance to every parent with teenagers on the site."

Reassurance is great, of course, but only if it's based on concrete and meaningful measures. While well-intended, the ClickCeop button is not any of these things. True, it may help deter exhibitionists and other blatant miscreants -- let's call them the overt perverts -- from interacting with younger users in ways which are clearly uninvited and inappropriate. But as for the really dangerous stuff, it is pretty much useless.

To understand why, you just have to look at the tragic circumstances which led CEOP to create the app in the first place. In October 2009 a 17-year-old girl, Ashleigh Hall, was murdered by a 33-year-old convicted rapist, Peter Chapman, who posed as a teenage boy on Facebook and lured Hall into meeting him alone for a romantic encounter.

The details of the case drew public attention to a number of issues -- for one thing, Chapman had jumped parole and eluded authorities for 13 months before murdering Hall. But they also make it clear that the real threat to children and teens isn't "overt perverts" engaging in lewd behavior online, which (while disturbing) ultimately takes place at a safe virtual distance. The real threat comes from predators who deceive younger users by impersonating innocuous or attractive individuals, then exploit their trust to set up face-to-face encounters. An online "panic button" won't do any good in these cases, simply because the victims never realize what's going on during the virtual stalking and "grooming."

Even if Facebook had a "panic button" back then, I doubt Hall would ever have used it during her communications with Chapman.

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