What next for Facebook after its nightmare week?
Public outrage over the shocking vandalism of internet tribute sites for two young Queenslanders who died in terrible circumstances has again raised questions over freedom online.
The worldwide web next month celebrates its 21st anniversary. It has grown from a single web page to more than a trillion unique pages and is expanding rapidly every day.
Social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube transformed the web from largely static pages under a website owner’s control into something more fluid, with people interacting on the websites to create content.
User contributions through posting images, video, comments and discussions take place at an almost frenetic pace. Facebook alone says more than 700 million posts, photos, comments and links are shared on its network every day.
Typical of such content were the tribute pages set up for 12-year-old Elliott Fletcher, killed in a knife attack at his Shorncliffe school, and eight-year-old Trinity Bates, found dead in a drain just metres from her Bundaberg home.
Emotional messages and sympathies were posted on tribute pages, with any Facebook user able to add content. But both pages were hijacked when some users added offensive and obscene material, prompting Queensland Police to have the material taken down.
Facebook spokeswoman Debbie Frost told The Courier-Mail the company was “co-operating” with Queensland and federal police on the issue and was willing to hand over what information it could to help any investigations.
“We’re not putting up barriers,” she said.
Frost says abuse on Facebook pages is rare and this latest incident has prompted the company to consider improving its security at the same time as keeping the network open for users to freely express their views.
“I don’t think that anybody really wants anybody to have to change their behaviour because of what these few ridiculous people are doing,” she says.
“We definitely want to learn and see if there are other ways, both automated or technical systems, we can employ to try to make sure we either get rid of content very very quickly or can identify inappropriate material.”
However, she says the company still favours the current self-regulation set-up where users can report to Facebook any material they believe is inappropriate.
But Facebook boasts more than 400 million active users. As a nation, only China and India would beat it in population. Imagine a nation of 400 million trying to operate with no pro-active policing, preferring self-regulation.
The University of Queensland crime and corrections expert and Australian Association of Social Workers national president Bob Lonne says it is time for such organisations to take responsibility to protect the public.
“Public networking sites have a moral and other responsibility in this regard,’’ he says. “It’s up to them to try to protect the general public.”
Public outrage at any abuse on the tribute sites, he says, is natural at a time when families and communities are trying to deal with the grief at the tragic deaths.
“It’s simply not acceptable to run a business model that allows these events to occur.”
The problem, though, is what to do. Any talk of censoring the web raises the hackles of those who campaign for freedom on the internet.
Yet even the campaign group Electronic Frontiers Australia says action is needed to wipe out any criminal act on sites such as Facebook.
“That doesn’t raise any free speech issues,” vice-chairman Colin Jacobs says. “If something crosses the line then that’s a good time for the moderators to step in.”
It may be time to rethink and rebuild the web from scratch, argues Dr Mark Gregory, an expert in computer engineering at RMIT in Victoria. He says the web was originally built with few security concerns.
“Everything we have been doing since is trying to retrofit security on a thing that doesn’t have security to start with,” he says.
There are some rules and international standards but they can still be bypassed, with those who use the web for illegal and offensive activity such as organised criminals and peddlers of child pornography simply ignoring them.
Gregory believes the time will come when public outrage, like that expressed this week, will tip the balance, forcing governments to act. The Queensland Government has already written to Facebook about the abuse issue.
“I have been calling for a number of changes to be made to the digital network for a number of years,’’ he says. “I think it has to be rebuilt.”
At 21, the web is still young and many of the major players are in their early years of development. Facebook has been around only six years, YouTube five and Twitter is just a four-year-old with the first tweet released in March 2006.
Criminologist Paul Wilson, from Bond University, says police should have the same powers to act with abuse on digital networks as they do on any other communication network.
However, he says such powers should be limited only to people who commit a crime.
“If they are notes or something which are unpleasant but not criminal in any way I don’t think you can use the law,’’ he says.
Facebook’s Debbie Frost says some people are just vandals.
“We are doing everything we can today in light of the fact that you are dealing with people who are vandals, she says.
“They’re behaving badly online on Facebook just as they do in real life.”
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