Last year, 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall agreed to meet up with someone she’d befriended on the social networking service Facebook. It turned out the person she believed to be a teenage boy named Peter Cartwright was actually 33 year-old serial sex offender Peter Chapman. Chapman kidnapped, raped, and suffocated Ashleigh Hall, then dumped her body in a field near Sedgefield, England. Chapman has since been sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in prison; however, the case has raised criticism of Facebook for not offering a so-called “Panic Button” to its site, which enables users to report suspected sex offenders and pedophiles to the UK’s Child Exploitation & Online Protection Center (CEOP). In the wake of the case, Facebook says it is considering adding the CEOP panic button, as well as links to other services designed to help children and parents avoid exploitation and bullying via the social networking site.
The CEOP “Panic Button” was introduced back in 2006 and has been widely adopted by communications and social networking services in the UK. The idea is to provide a universally-recognizable, one-click way for children to get immediate police help, or contacting their social networking provider or CEOP for help. The CEOP button was adopted quickly by MSN and more recently by AOL’s Bebo social networking platform. Following the Ashleigh Hall case, pressure is mounting on Facebook to adopt the CEOP panic button; the BBC reports that Facebook executives and Home Secretary Alan Johnson exchanged “frank views” about Facebook adopting the CEOP button, with Johnson emphasizing Facebook should put this above all other considerations.”
Facebook has said it is “deeply saddened” by the Ashleigh Hall case. Facebook does offer a Safety Center with information and resources to help users report abuse and potential online threats. Facebook has an abuse and problem reporting system in place, which the company has claimed handles most cases quickly, including fast referrals to law enforcement in serious cases where there may be immediate danger.
According to CEOP, almost three quarters of all reports to them concerning social networking sites were in regard to Facebook.