Facebook and The Panic Button Panic

Child protection agency Ceop argued over how much presence it should have on Facebook. It should be making its message to children clearer and going viral, says Peter Judge

Protecting children should rightly engage more emotions than pretty much any other subject – but it seems to me that, emotions aside, the Facebook child protection row was just another argument about online advertising space.

The rumblings of the row began in 2009, but it blew up before the General Election, as politicians the press got involved. Facebook makes money from its screen estate, and the eyeballs that look at it. The police agency, Ceop (Child Exploitation and Online Protection), asked for some of that estate to promote child safety online, with a “panic button” on every Facebook page.

Essentially, Facebook argued over how best it could use its screen estate to help Ceop, and how effective Ceop’s preferred form of advertising would be, in the real aim of protecting children.

The “panic button” argument is now over, with Facebook adding an optional Ceop application. But it’s worth looking at what’s been gained and lost in the process.

Getting attention

Facebook declined to give Ceop space on every page for a panic button. It opted instead to let Ceop set up its own application, for a button – and is giving that button a limited run of free adverts, delivered to its users who are under 18.

How you view this result depends on how you view the players.

Do you think Facebook is a greedy company which does as little as it can get away with, and has little interest in protecting its users’ safety and privacy, while making as much money as possible? Then you will take one side.

Do you think that Ceop itself was opportunistic, pushing its own scheme for online child protection, regardless of whether other ways might be just as good, pressing Facebook but doing little to make its message compelling to the people it hopes will respond to it – the children. If you think this, you will take another view.

The truth, of course is much more “nuanced”, as Jemima Kiss poinst out in a Guardian blog.

Facebook is certainly right when it points out that putting the Ceop button on every Facebook page probably would generate a lot of “false positives” just from people clicking the button by mistake or misunderstanding what it is for.

Ceop may be right when it says that making the button optional will mean that not everyone will be aware of it. But the current solution does give Ceop the chance to spread its message virally.

Of course, to do this, Ceop will have to make its button more obviously relevant to children. Kiss sugests the agency should take a leafe out of the book of the drugs information campaign, Talk to Frank. which is obviously aimed at youth.

The Ceop app page uses clear English, but doesn’t really go out of its way to grab attention. Clearly the agency doesn’t want to go round spreading panic amongst children (though it’s happy if politicians such as Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson spread panic amongst adults).

Children on Facebook spend most of their time playing in Zynga apps like Farmville and – the current favourite amongst kids I know – Frontierville. There’s nothing on the Ceop page that can compete with that for attention – no pictures at all, for instance.

This is strange, given Ceop’s past activity – in February, just before the Facebook issue blew up, it was involved in the highly visual Zip it, Block it, Flag it campaign, and an Internet safety cartoon featuring “Lee and Kim“.

Ceop may be disappointed with what it has got from Facebook. It needs to start doing more to use what it has effectively. If it can go viral, it will be effective. If not, it can bully all the ad space it likes out of Facebook, but it won’t make a real difference.