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Compromise between Facebook, U.K. police agency?

Stranded in London, Larry Magid used his time to work toward a compromise between Facebook and the U.K.'s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center.

LONDON--Thanks to the volcanic ash pouring out of Iceland, I had some extra time in London last week, giving me an opportunity to try my hand at shuttle diplomacy between Facebook and a British police agency called the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, or CEOP.

I came to London en route to a tech conference in Spain that was canceled due to the air travel issues and also to give a talk at a Family Online Safety Institute conference in Bahrain that starts Tuesday.

As I wrote recently, CEOP is pressuring Facebook to add a reporting button (some call it a "panic button") on every page visited by U.K. users. The button, which would be a logo approved by CEOP, takes people to a page with links with information about various online safety issues and a link to report "sexual behavior," such as an adult soliciting or chatting with a child about sex. That latter link enables someone to make a police report directly via CEOP.

Here is the button that CEOP is insisting that Facebook adds to U.K. pages. CEOP

Facebook has said that it does not want to use CEOP's button and that it wants to route people to its own Safety Center, which also provides advice and links to nonprofit safety groups and to Facebook's own reporting mechanism.

For U.K. users, Facebook's newly designed Safety Center includes a link to CEOP's reporting mechanism. But this isn't enough for CEOP CEO Jim Gamble, who told me that the reporting button itself is very important.

Surveying the scene
To get a better understanding of the issue, I spent several hours visiting Facebook's U.K. office and five hours at CEOP's London headquarters. The volcano prevented Gamble from returning to London, so I spoke with him twice by phone from the U.S., where he was stuck.

First, let me say that CEOP is a first-class operation. Modeled in part on the U.S.-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (on whose board I serve), CEOP investigates all types of crimes against children on and off the Internet. It employs a highly skilled team of law enforcement professionals and experts in safety education. Although it's run as a law enforcement agency, it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to child protection with a complement of professionals from other fields. There is even a staff member who comes from Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to help provide child welfare and support services.

I was especially impressed with the organization's educational efforts, led by Helen Penn, a person I worked with years ago when both of us were associated with Childnet International, a U.K.-based organization that promotes online safety and the positive use of technology by youth.

I was also pleased to see that the page the so-called "panic button" takes people to isn't really about panic as much as it is about offering a range of educational resources and an opportunity to make a report to police.

Shouldn't be about the button
Despite the arguments from CEOP staff and Gamble, I remain unconvinced that children in the U.K. will be better served by the agency's demands that Facebook include a button that links to CEOP on every page.

Gamble's arguments in favor of the link is that it will serve as a deterrent to would-be child abusers and that it will be instantly recognized by millions of U.K. children who are being trained to use CEOP resources in schools.

While the argument that children might more easily recognize the button has some merit, it still strikes me as unnecessary as long as Facebook creates its own prominent and clearly marked links to safety resource and an abuse reporting form. I agree that Facebook can and should do more to make abuse reporting easier for its users worldwide, regardless of how the CEOP controversy is finally resolved.

However, I am simply not convinced the button will serve as a deterrent. First of all, the vast majority of abuse reports do not involve adult crimes against minors, but minor-to-minor issues such as cyberbullying or minors posting information or images that could negatively impact them. Also it is well known in Britain and many other countries, that sexual contact with children can result in very long prison sentences and being listed on a sex offender registry. If that's not enough to stop someone from using the Internet to try to arrange a sexual encounter with a child, I don't think a CEOP button will be either.

At the end of the day, I think that Facebook--not one particular British police agency--should be the first line of defense in providing safety messaging and reporting.

Facebook, which already has strong anti-abuse policies in place, needs to make those policies abundantly clear to all parties. The company's new Safety Center is a step in that direction, but Facebook also needs to make its abuse reporting procedures more obvious to everyone. The company also needs to beef up its back-end resources to make sure that all abuse reports are dealt with promptly and, when necessary, immediately forwarded to the appropriate agency in the appropriate country. In some cases, this will be law enforcement agencies like CEOP. In other cases, it could be anti-bullying groups or suicide prevention hot lines or agencies like National Center for Missing & Exploited Children that handle reports of child pornography. All of this, of course, must be consistent with Facebook's privacy policies and the laws in each jurisdiction where Facebook operates.

Is a compromise possible?
After meeting with CEOP staff, I had a follow-up call with Gamble along with Facebook U.K. policy chief Richard Allen in which I suggested a compromise that would include Facebook making a major commitment to beef up its reporting systems and to undergo an independently managed audit. I suggested that CEOP and its law enforcement counterparts in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and other regions be involved in the process as well as other experts in the fields of cyberbullying, suicide prevention, and other child welfare issues. In exchange, I asked Gamble to at least temporarily put aside his demands for the CEOP button as long as Facebook has its own clearly marked reporting links.

Gamble did not immediately agree but the proposal is still on the table and, perhaps, subject to further negotiation. Of course, any agreement would have to be two-way. Although Facebook has already said that it will improve its reporting systems and create a 24-hour police hot line for the U.K., I have not yet mentioned this particular proposal to decision makers at Facebook headquarters in California.