Rory Cellan-Jones

Who polices Facebook?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 28 Nov 08, 16:42 GMT

A young producer on Radio 4's Today programme got a shock the other day when he logged onto Facebook. In his newsfeed was an item posted by a friend linking to a photo, allegedly of the mother of Baby P, the child killed in the recent notorious case. Various obscene and threatening comments were then posted next to the photo. Facebook is removing the picture and other details when notified by members, but new groups keep popping up.

FacebookThe names of the baby's parents are also being distributed via text, and presumably on other web outlets. A court order protects the identity of these people and no mainstream media outlet would even consider breaking that ruling. So what are the responsibilities of social networks when their members break the law in this manner - and how carefully should they police the material that is generated by their users?

It all comes down to how you see the likes of Facebook and MySpace - are they just technology platforms, playgrounds for their users to exploit as they will? Or are they now becoming major media businesses facing the same regulatory demands as a broadcaster or a newspaper? The networks would like to be treated much the same as telecoms businesses - after all nobody is suggesting that the mobile network on which that text about Baby P's parents was sent should have any responsibility to stop that happening.

But there is growing pressure from politicians and regulators, who, as the online child safety expert John Carr told me, "are getting more self-confident, more assertive, about the internet, and are no longer convinced it's lawless and ungovernable." Mr Carr, who acts as an advisor to Facebook's rival MySpace, pointed out that MPs on the Culture Select Committee had ordered social networks to be more proactive in their policing of their members.

Nicholas Lansmann, chief executive of the Internet Service Providers Association said on the Today Programme that sites like Facebook are "not the police of the internet" and worked under the "notice and take-down regulations", which required them to remove illegal content once notified about it. He said that system was working well but that it was very difficult to tackle what were in effect millions of self-publishers particualrly given the cross-border nature of the internet.

Which bring us back to Facebook, a California-based company, which is now a major force in the UK, and boasts of its ambitions here. The company did give us a statement about the Baby P issue,detailing out all the actions it has taken to remove content that violates its terms of use, and pointing out that the network is a "highly self regulating comunity". But despite being given 36 hours notice, the company refused to provide anyone in California or London to speak about the issue. It has also been less forthcoming than other networks when asked to comment more generally on privacy and security issues.

Facebook is becoming the place where millions of British people get news, views, and all sorts of media content, and that means it will be under the spotlight more and more. It has a perfectly decent case to argue when it comes to its self-regulatory model - so shouldn't it be out there making that case?


  • Comment number 1.

    In the age of self publishing the individual members of sites like Facebook need to be held accountable for the content they upload. Sites can and should do more but they are not causing the problem, individual people are and those people should take responsibility for what they write.

    It's difficult because making the site the regulator is the easy and effective option but perhaps not the right one.

  • Comment number 2.

    Surely if somebody posted (ie the person placing it on facebook) that in the UK they would have breached a court order. Assuming facebook keep ip logs then it should be possibile to find out who/where they are.

    People have responsibilities, not just facebook.

  • Comment number 3.

    It would be quite difficult to hold the likes of Facebook or Myspace responsible to prosecution - unless the site itself is hosted within the EU.

    Social networking sites are tools, much like a hammer. Its how you use it.

  • Comment number 4.

    Its about time Facebook handed over the names of everyone who is joining these groups of vigilantes to the police so they can all be charged with violating the court orders.

    I think the Baby P case was disgusting as much as anyone... but some of the groups that suggest we should "remember this face" or "they deserve to be dead" should be shut down.

    The best way to handle these groups is to report them, and then they will be shut down. The real failing is that Darwin's theories have failed to work in regards to those who are so stupid to be spreading this vile vitriolic hate around social networking sites.

  • Comment number 5.

    It has always bothered me that in stories like this it has been obvious that journalists know all the facts that are denied to us by law. The internet is a great leveler and it means that journalists no longer hold that privliged position.
    If the information truly needs to be protected it should be protected from everybody.

  • Comment number 6.


    the problem with that view is that the journalists do not break the court orders. If they cannot and do not release that information, i'm sure they dont go round thinking "yes, i know something somebody else does not know". Nor (to a certain degree) do they use emotive language when discussing these events.

    The name(s) have not been made public for a reason, but one can only feel there is an accute reason for that. That reason has not been made public.

    True, the internet can be a great leveller but it can also do a great deal of damage. Without knowing all the details in this case it is improper to release any details. Those who do so should be held reponssibile for any "damage" that occurs as a result of their illegal actions.

  • Comment number 7.

    We must think about two issues before we hastily adjudge what should be sentencable and what is just wrong:

    - transparency of information: i.e. does everyone on this planet need to know the details of every law, to whom it applies, and to what extent it applies?

    - human brain's storage of information: i.e. can we remember every law, every modification to domestic and international law? on top of every other agenda

    if we are to arrest everyone for breaking every possible law, i think half of us would be prison. therefore, civilization is not governed by vigilantes nor are they governed by reactionaries posting above me.

    They are government by common sense, understanding and foresight.

  • Comment number 8.

    You can't expect a platform like Facebook or Myspace to police the millions of people using the service, it's just unfeasible.

    Social networks should continue taking down posted information only after it has been highlighted as being offensive or against the terms and conditions of the site, though the time it takes to remove this material should be minimised to avoid further embarrassments like this.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't think anyone Polices FACEBOOK ; except when they are doing a crackdown on the site.

  • Comment number 10.

    And yet, someone should. At start, we designed (currently some parts under construction) a site bundleing all possible informatioon on Facebooks' privacy violation, risk on identityteft, copyright infridgements, etc..

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi i like facebook platform more than Myspace platform :_)
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 12.

    Not much surprises me on the internet anymore. One tries to avoid the nasty and distasteful stuff, but it's not always possible. How shocking to be dragged into something sociably outrageous as being inadvertently associated with a facebook group or profile that really does NOT represent your beliefs or moral compass.

    But one might recall that the internet isn't monitored or censored. At least not in North America and many European countries. Be thankful that you CAN access information freely at all.

    Unfortunately, as that is the case, social media sites like, are always going to have a challenge in keeping their internet property (per se) "clean".

    Sure, they could hire a massive staff force to monitor profiles and groups, or make it easier for users to report inappropriate content.. but it'll be an ongoing effort and things will always slip through the cracks.


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