The father of a vulnerable girl exposed to sexual exploitation when she was 11 has sued Facebook for failing to enforce rigorously its age restrictions. The social network hosting company reached a confidential settlement before a scheduled two week trial was due to begin in the High Court in Northern Ireland last Monday.
Lawyers argued that Facebook’s registration system meant it was too easy to set up accounts, of which there are believed to be over a billion, potentially risking users’ exposure to extreme material, reports the The Sunday Times.
The girl, who is under a care order, had set up several accounts to contact men and to post and receive pictures of an “entirely inappropriate sexual nature.” Facebook did deactivate the accounts in question, but it was argued that the company should have taken further action to prevent her from setting up more accounts despite being under the 13-year-old age limit – a global rule the company says is designed to comply with US law about children’s online privacy, rather than stemming from a belief that Facebook is “unsafe”.
Court documents show the lawyers argued that Facebook, who they said owed the girl a duty of care, was “negligent in that it failed to have a proper system in place for registration of a Facebook account so that it was impossible, or at the very least difficult, for a child to register by misrepresenting her age.”
They argued further that be registering and using a Facebook account the child “might be exposing herself to sexual predators or other grave risks affecting her emotional and physical health such as exposure to videos of beheadings or sites with necrophilia, paedophilia or suicide.”
The lawyers said Facebook is “obviously aware that children who should not be using Facebook are doing so and that they are doing so by the simple device of when opening an account…misrepresenting their age.”
It was also argued that an 11-year-old is not capable of giving consent under the 1998 Data Protection Act to “throw away her privacy rights.”
At an earlier stage of the case the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had been included as a defendant. The family’s lawyers argued the DCMS should have legislated to enforce age limits, but later dropped their case against the government.
According to The Sunday Times, if Facebook did agree compensation, as the family had demanded, it could have significant implications for other social networks and online services in general. Such a move could effectively impose obligations on them to enforce age limits, something Facebook previously admitted it struggled to do.
Simon Milner, then the director of policy for Facebook UK and Ireland, told a conference in 2013 the company did not have “a mechanism for eradicating the problem [of underage users].” Another contributor to the conference said a third of British nine- to 12-year-olds have a Facebook profile.
During the case hearings it was said a Facebook adviser disclosed that the company removes 20,000 underage users a day. Facebook was asked to provide details about the training given to moderators to deal with underage children.
Facebook has commented after the case: “People have to be 13 to sign up to Facebook. Everyone joining has to tell us their age and if they are under 13 they can’t open an account. When we become aware that someone is under 13 and they have therefore lied about their age, we remove their account.
“Regarding this legal case, all parties are bound by the confidentiality terms, including Facebook.”
The Sunday Times reports that others are now taking action, drawing up best practice guidance for the social media industry on how best to keep children safe and protected on their platforms.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, an official advisory body to the government, has presented a scheme to be presented at a conference this week for issuing children aged 5-18 with electronic age check ‘tokens’ to be used whenever they access age-restricted sites.