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BC coalition appeals to Facebook to address 'security failures'

"Facebook has become a brand feared by parents, when it should be one they can trust."

That's the message a coalition of B.C. advocates, policymakers and parents, including the mother of Amanda Todd, shared with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in an open letter sent Nov. 14.

The letter asks the company to address what it calls "security failures" that put children's privacy at risk. 

"Facebook has over a billion users around the world, of which an estimated 20 per cent, or 200 million, are aged 17 and under. Those users should be secure from contact with unscrupulous predators and abusers," it reads.

The plea is one of the first initiatives of The Red Hood project, a grassroots campaign aiming to make social media safe for young users. The campaign is spearheaded by former B.C. Crown prosecutor Sandy Garossino and the Centre for Child Honouring founder and children's musician Raffi Cavoukian. 

The campaign was inspired, in part, by the death of B.C. teenager Amanda Todd, who was targeted by a cyber predator through social networks. That led to bullying online and in real life, a story widely known through a YouTube video the young woman posted detailing her ordeal. Todd ended her life in October.

The letter to Facebook outlines various "systemic design defects" of the social network and other sites like YouTube and Omegle that facilitate the access of children's private information.

"Known security gaps in a proliferating host of mobile applications have converted mainstream social media sites into highly effective devices for predators and abusive bullies. And in what can only be described as the cruelest irony, YouTube now sells advertising on Amanda's desperate video cry for help, while in a well-documented trend, her Facebook memorial page was desecrated," stated the letter, also signed by another bereaved parent, the chair of Vancouver Coastal Health, and a number of B.C. media personalities.

The coalition did applaud some efforts by Facebook to improve safety, such as its current initiative to reduce bullying and make young users safer through education. 

Today, Facebook announced its support of the American-European Child Internet Safety Agreement, a pact that partners the efforts of U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the European Commission to further the protections of children online.

"As the mother of two young children, one of the reasons I'm so passionate about technology is because I want my kids to grow up experiencing things that I never had the opportunity to experience when I was their age," Facebook COO Sandberg said in a video posted today announcing her company's support. 

Sandberg said Facebook has worked to foster a culture that uses real names and identities, "where people have to take responsibility for their actions online."

"We've added reporting tools across the site and on mobile. One type of reporting we have is social reporting, which means people can get help not just from Facebook, but from a trusted friend, parent or teacher, someone who might have a better understanding of the situation, and be there so they can help address it. We've also designed privacy controls especially for the needs of young people in order to make sure we provide greater protection," she said.

Facebook also has a "safety page" where users can find safety tools and resources.

Garossino wrote in an email to The Tyee that Red Hood shares Sandberg's excitement for technology.*

"However, a platform with a billion users that relies on reporting and education alone cannot make up for the serious security gaps that put kids in harm's way," Garossino stated.

"Multi-billion dollar corporations can and should put the same effort into child security as they give to credit card security."

*Story updated Nov. 20 at 6:20 p.m.

Robyn Smith reports for The Tyee.

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