Facebook: Cyber-Bully Or Cyber-Victim?

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CEOP is bullying Facebook to display its button. Peter Judge would side with the social networking site, if he didn’t have doubts about its privacy stance

There’s no half-measures with Facebook. Its media fate is always praise or vilification, never anything in between.

The Daily Mail says it causes cancer; the Telegraph says it causes syphilis. Both these claims have of course been debunked here and here. It also causes divorce, rickets and unemployment – if you’re a spy married to someone with a Facebook page.

Hero or villain?

On the plus side, Facebook is currently rescuing people stranded abroad by the flight ban caused by the volcanic dust cloud and (along with Twitter) changing the future of British politics.

Type “facebook causes” into Google and the top ten suggestions give you a feel of the current Zeitgeist around the networking site. Right now, it causes cancer, depression, divorce, arguments and jealousy, as well as causing Internet Explorer to crash.

The one surprise, is that Google doesn’t suggest “Faceook causes child abuse”. No-one comes out and says that, but it’s pretty much the substance of the moral panic that surrounded the site in March, after it refused to display, on every page, a child-protection “panic button” which had been promoted by a government online safety campaign in February. The button alerts CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection), a British police agency.

Given the connection established in many people’s minds, the Vatican might want to rethink its advice to priests to get onto Facebook- but that’s a whole other public relations disaster we don’t want to go into.

By not displaying the button, Facebook is not “doing enough” to protect children and deter those who prey on them, say its critics. Facebook says it has its own protection methods already in place, and argues that it has evidence they work better than the CEOP button.

Facebook – a victim of police bullying?

My instinctive reaction is to side with Facebook. They’re the online experts, and CEOP’s bid for real estate on Facebook sounds faintly similar to potential partners we meet at eWEEK Europe, who want a little more space on our home page than we (or our readers) want to give them. Underneath the child protection issue, the argument between Facebook and CEOP is about online branding and visibility.

CEOP wants its brand big – and argues that this is a good way to build “deterrence” into web use, apparently on the basis that cyber-stalkers will be scared off by the presence of the button. I have doubts about that, and the pressure brought to bear on the site based on that assertion have begun to look a lot like bullying.

But we know at eWEEK that Facebook is not pure as the driven snow. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg, has come out with some highly questionable statements about privacy – essentially implying that young, hip people don’t need it any more. Facebook revamps usually tweak the way privacy is administered, and usually in a way that pushes users to share more – some say more than they should share.

“Facebook uses default settings which are hostile to privacy,” Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, has said. “It is a con trick on users”.

What’s Facebook going to do with business data?

And Facebook’s policies on data sharing will become ever more important to business people. Facebook has become a business tool, albeit one with massive risks. And if current trends continue, Facebook traffic will at some point beat Google traffic.

For businesses, Facebook is becoming another business channel, like the phone or email. But it’s one where the channel itself wants to own and use data about the people using it – the kind of data which businesses want to keep to themselves.

Any business dealings on Facebook bear some resemblance to deals with the devil – you may not feel your personal details are important, just as the Devil’s victims realise too late that the importance of their soul.

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