Facebook’s new ‘Panic Button’ misses the point
By Erik Sass
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.
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."
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
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
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.
you believe a so-called panic button would help keep young people safe
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This article first appeared in MediaPost.