Facebook must do more to protect children – NI father’s solicitor


7 Sep 2011

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Hilary Carmichael, solicitor of the Northern Ireland man suing Facebook, told Siliconrepublic.com why she thinks Facebook isn’t doing enough to protect children online.

The case was made by the father of a 12-year-old girl who had been posting reportedly sexually suggestive images of herself to a number of Facebook accounts.

Her father claims Facebook failed to uphold its terms of use, which state that members must be over 13 years old and as a result, is guilty of negligence. He is looking for an injunction to shut down her account and ban her from Facebook, along with seeking damages.

If successful, Facebook could have to pay them “very substantial compensation,” according to Carmichael.

Carmichael said that she believes Facebook and the government aren’t doing enough to give parents guidelines for children using the social networking site.

“We think that they’ve taken very limited steps to warn parents about the risks. We find that parents simply do not realise that pictures of their children are being spread around on Facebook and that, in some instances, paedophiles use these images for their own self-gratification,” she said.

“We encourage parents to look at their children’s Facebook accounts in detail and to ask themselves if children have made themselves look older, what pictures have been posted and do they actually know their friends. Our particular client didn’t realise that his daughter had 496 friends on Facebook.”

More lawsuits?

Carmichael set up http://www.childrenonfacebook.com/, which lets parents fill in a form to the solicitor’s office about their children’s use of Facebook. One section points out they could receive compensation if rights were infringed, which could spark more legal complaints against Facebook.

“The point of our website is that the law says that every child has the right not to be placed at risk from inhuman or degrading treatment, and that’s really what we’re determined to uphold, because if your child was approached by a sex offender on the street, you’d be disgusted,” she said.

“But on sites like Facebook, sex offenders with fake identities are befriending these young children and children don’t have the maturity or the sense to realise what they’re doing,” Carmichael said.

Moderation

She suggested Facebook should implement an age check to confirm if the member is over 13, such as through a passport number.

But a system like this may prove difficult to roll out, with users already wary of submitting personal information to Facebook, not to mention the fact it’s not guaranteed that all Facebook users have a passport.

I asked Carmichael her opinion on Facebook’s current reporting system. A Facebook spokesperson said that along with its safety centre, a team reviews and acts upon most reported content within 24 hours, with priority given to serious complaints.

“It’s very good that they do have reporting, whereby if you spot something and report it, it should be taken down, but it doesn’t always happen,” said Carmichael.

“We, through our website, have now received emails from parents who say they have reported abuses repeatedly to Facebook but that these abuses have not been actioned upon.”

Responsibility

I also pointed out the Republic of Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s comments made to the Irish Examiner about the matter, where he said that monitoring children’s online activity was the parents’ responsibility and was “not simply a matter for legislation.”

She responded that she believed responsibility should be dually held between the parents and those who run Facebook.

“At the end of the day, parents can do their best, but if a child is determined to get onto Facebook they’ll do it through their mobile phones or their laptops, and they’ll use a slight variation of their name,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair that someone should say that it’s all about the parents, because it’s not. In this particular case, the child is subject to a voluntary care arrangement with the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trust, so the father is doing his absolute best in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have access to her mobile phone or computer on a daily basis to keep her out of Facebook,” said Carmichael, highlighting that the Trust is also being sued in this case.

Carmichael believes the case will be successful as “children under the age of 13 don’t have the legal capacity to sign up to Facebook’s terms and conditions.” She also emphasised they will ask the court to prevent Facebook from operating in Northern Ireland if the site is not made safer for children.

“I think it will be difficult for Facebook to mount a defence for this, because what started off as a social networking site has grown and by the virtue of their sheer size, these individuals come along and use it as it wasn’t intended,” she said.