Monday, October 15, 2012

Amanda Todd

But one thing is certain, and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well. Someone had to do it eventually...

Mark Zuckerberg was referring to Facebook's predecessor, Facemash, but he might as well have been talking about the multi-billion dollar corporation that has become the largest stalking mechanism in human history. And both components of his statement are probably true - that he is a jerk, and that someone would have done it anyways.

The rest, as they say, is history (and if you don't know it, google it or watch the damn movie), so let's fast-forward to last Wednesday, October 10, 2012, the day a British Columbia teen named Amanda Todd committed suicide, a month and a few days after she posted a video on YouTube to tell her story, along with a comment that ended, ironically, with " just gotta pull through. I'm still here aren't I ?"

So what does Amanda's death have to do with Mark's creation? According to the wiki article, "Amanda Michelle Todd... was a 15-year-old Canadian teenager who committed suicide attributed to cyber-bullying through the social networking website Facebook." Yes, teens made innocent mistakes before the internet. Yes, bullying existed before the internet. Yes, teens committed suicide before the internet. But this particular tragedy had its roots on the internet, and the bottom line is that Amanda Todd is dead because of something that started and grew on the internet.

The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand...

Eric Schmidt's words might be the understatement of the century. When the social side of the internet first became a significant part of my life as I knew it a few years ago, I marvelled at its potential. The free exchange of information, the unifying effect on the global village, the ability to bare my soul behind the shield of anonymity, all of these showed me that the internet could be, and indeed was, so much more than a convenient way to conduct financial transactions, communicate with clients, and buy stuff.

Now it's starting to scare the hell out of me.

Exactly one week before Amanda Todd ended her life over the fallout from a picture of her breasts on Facebook, someone very close to me woke up to find that his ex-wife had posted topless pictures of their 16-year-old daughter on, yep, Facebook. The girl had taken the pictures of herself in private and saved them on her mother's computer with a reasonable expectation of privacy. Eventually, her mother came across the pictures. Suffice it to say that the mother is not well, and there you have it.

The police were called and an officer was dispatched to take the complaint and collect the evidence in the form of screenshots and page downloads, but father and daughter were informed that local police had no way to contact Facebook directly to have the photos removed, and were advised to flag the images to Facebook themselves. They did so, along with a few close friends who had already seen the page, and prayed that the photos wouldn't spread too far during the 48 hours within which Facebook would do its best to review them.

Fortunately, the photos were removed by the end of the school day (and so far there is no evidence to suggest that they went anywhere further, but you can never be completely sure on the internet), but not by Facebook. According to the information on the Support Dashboards of those who flagged the images, the photos were removed by the mother (or someone with access to her account) before being reviewed.

Had this not been the case, it's anybody's guess how long it might have taken for Facebook to remove them (or even if they would have done so), how far they might have spread in the interim, and consequently, how much harm this might have caused to the young lady in question. Kinda makes you wonder not if, but when, we will hear about the next Amanda Todd.

It could also make you wonder how many more Amanda Todds we will hear about before Facebook takes steps to protect a huge segment of its users - children. Google+ (which appeals to a more mature market) has a Child Safety section in its content policy that stipulates: Do not distribute content that exploits children, such as child pornography (including cartoon child porn) or content that presents children in a sexual manner (which, presumably, would include topless photos). Facebook has nothing of the sort.

In fact, Facebook took several weeks to remove a page titled "Pedophiles are people too," having first simply tagged it with a "controversial humour" flag, citing freedom of expression, and finally taking it down (coincidentally) the day after Amanda Todd's suicide. (The page had prompted several pages critical of Facebook's initial decision, some of which where themselves taken down first, and at least one parody aimed at Zuckerberg.)

It is important to note that Facebook is not responsible for what bullies did to Amanda Todd, nor is it their fault a sick individual posted semi-nude photos of her daughter on Facebook. That said, it is incomprehensible that this multi-billion dollar corporation refuses to commit any but the most minimal of resources to dealing with these situations when they fester on its platform, and Facebook has come under increasing criticism for its head-in-the-sand approach to the online safety of its young users.

Can Facebook afford to hire more people in order to process abuse reports more quickly? Yes. Can Facebook afford to set up hotlines available to local law enforcement 24/7? Yes. Can Facebook afford to work with school systems to promote internet safety awareness among children? Yes. Is Facebook legally obligated to do any of these things? No, nor should they be. Should that stop the world's largest social network from assuming these social responsibilities?

Mark Zuckerberg did not kill Amanda Todd  He did nothing to hurt the young lady with the sick mother. But he also did nothing to help either one of them, as CEO of a corporation whose current policies can and do contribute to tragedies like Amanda's, and to the nightmares of a father who may have been spared such a tragedy by a stroke of good luck, no thanks to Facebook.

Is Mark Zuckeberg a good man? I have no idea, but if he is, he might start paying attention to what's happening on his creation, as well as to the words of Edmund Burke:

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.