Ask.fm, child suicide, and the jurisdictional problem

When 14 year old Hannah Smith took her own life after receiving abuse on the social networking site Ask.fm, campaigners called for the site to be shut down. Is forcing teenagers onto other social networking sites the answer to the UK's problem with bullying?

What happens when you ask a question and the response is a series of cruel, malicious and denigrating responses? What happens when the answers come in the form a series of anonymous bullying trolls eager to do damage and impart mental torture on those who have turned to the site to seek responses to feeling of teenage angst and doubt? How does the Internet pressure a Latvian based Internet company that operates the social networking site Ask.fm to turn its entire business model into something more, well, paternal in nature? Unlike other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments, increase privacy settings or find out who is behind anonymous bullying. The site has exploded in popularity since its launch in 2010, growing from eight million users last year to 65 million in 2013 and adding around 300,000 new users around the globe each day. It is aimed at teenagers and users are required to state they are over 13.So what to do about English schoolgirl Hannah Smith who committed suicide after allegedly being bullied by cyber-trolls on the site? Last autumn two Irish schoolgirls – Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher, took their own lives, and in April, Josh Unsworth, 15, from Lancashire, killed himself after suffering months of abusive online messages. Clearly Miss Smith was already a very troubled young girl. She posted pictures onto the site of her self-harming. The photos were met with responses from anonymous responders egging her on and encouraging her to end her own life. Her father and some British charities called for the site to be shutdown. Her father demanded to know: “How many more teenagers will kill themselves because of online abuse before something is done? These sick people are just able to go online and hide behind a mask of anonymity while they abuse vulnerable teenagers.”Campaigning charity BeatBullying called for more moderators and greater control for victims of bullying. “We cannot forget that thousands of young people…face a daily barrage of online abuse, death threats and harassment. We cannot stand by while innocent children lose their lives.”“We want internet service providers, websites, schools, government and the police to come together and produce a UK anti-bullying strategy, to prove this kind of behaviour will not be ­tolerated. It’s shocking that one in three young people are cyber-bullied.”

Ask.fm responses to Hannah Smith's query

Yet this type of oversight is exactly why young people are turning away from Facebook and moving toward more anonymity based social networking sites. If sites put so many safety measures in place that users feel their expression being restricted, users can simply leave, possibly to a site, app or service in some country with no protective laws in place (or just a less reputable one). There's essentially an infinite number of "places" where users can go. It's too easy for young people to find workarounds, which is why it's better to keep communications lines open than to ban things and send kids "underground."Secondly, kids are protected by privacy laws too and have embraced the brutal honesty that the platform provides. For example, The Independent in Dublin wrote about a young girl that supported Ask.fm’s format for its brutal honesty: “Last fall, a girl told us she had put a question about herself on the ask.fm site and was waiting for the anonymous answers. She said while they might be mean, at least she would know what people think about her.”What can be done? Although Ask.fm has had their advertisers start to pull their ads form the site, it is unclear how this will begin to bring changes to Ask.fm’s business model. While the financial pressure may force the site to change its architecture to facilitate greater protection and increased security for its users, it is unlikely that the law can interfere on behalf of children. US federal privacy law prohibits online service providers from disclosing a user's identity to another user without a court order – at least in the US. Not only is there the problem of jurisdiction in cyberspace, but the cultural problem of bullying within different territories. The UK may have a significantly lesser tolerance for bullying, but a significantly bigger problem than other countries. Ask.fm’s founder Mark Terebin said on Irish television last fall that “we only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all. It seems that children are crueler in these countries.”

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