Cyber-bullying is on the increase and remedies for the abused are not keeping pace. Celebrities such as Coleen Nolan, Antony Costa and Duncan James have recently reported threats made to them on Twitter to the police. But the problem is not limited to just the rich and famous. More and more teenagers are being targeted and abused by their peers.
The press have reported on at least 4 teenagers who have taken their own lives over the past year as a direct result of the abuse they have received online. Earlier this month, another suicide attempt was averted when Kierah Gowers's mother stepped in to prevent her daughter from poisoning herself after suffering 6 months of abusive messages.
Hannah Smith was not so fortunate. The most recent case of cyber-bullying resulting in death was the tragic suicide of 14 year old Hannah, who hanged herself following months of abuse on the website Ask.fm.
On the morning of 2 August 2013, Jo Smith (aged 16) discovered her sister had committed suicide in her bedroom.
Hannah was told "u ugly f*** go die evry1 wud be happy", "do us all a favour n kill urself", "drink bleach", "go get cancer" and "go commit suicide". Similarly vile comments were made about her family by anonymous trolls.
A tribute page set up in memory of Hannah by her family was then defaced. Users posted "good bitch killed herself" and "its her own fault for taking her own life. Its cowardice. and instead of opening our eyes to the dead we should open our ears to the living".
What encourages these abusers is the fact that they can do so anonymously. As Mrs Gowers confirms, police were unable to do anything about the abusive messages that her daughter received because the anonymous users who posted the messages could not be traced.
Ask.fm is a Latvian based social networking site with, incredibly, over 52 million registered users. The site allows its users to post and answer questions anonymously on the highly suspect grounds that these same users may be too shy to reveal their identities.
The terms and conditions on the Ask.fm website state that:
"Anonymity should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful. Asking a question anonymously on Ask.fm hides your name from the person you're asking and from other users. We will never reveal your identity to the user. This can be useful if you're feeling shy or think that the recipient would be more comfortable answering a question without knowing who may have asked it."
And then note this:
"If you break the rules, you are responsible - and we can supply identifying information to law enforcement if necessary."
So Ask.fm seeks to absolve themselves of responsibility, (we examine in a later article whether they can do so) and says nothing about giving victims the right of redress by supplying them with names and addresses, should the family of the victim seek the civil remedies that may well be available.
And if that isn't enough the terms and conditions continue:
"The ask.fm service allows for anonymous content which ask.fm does not monitor. You agree to use the ask.fm service at your own risk and that ask.fm shall have no liability to you for content that you may find objectionable, obscene or in poor taste."
And then the meaningless sop:
"You shall abide by applicable local, state, national and international laws and regulations and be solely responsible for all acts or omissions that occur with respect to your use of the ask.fm service. By way of example.. you will not…Transmit or encourage the transmission of unlawful, harassing, libellous, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene or otherwise objectionable material of any kind or nature."
As safety advice, the website tells users to consult a "parent, guardian or other trusted adult" and advises users that they can report and block other users for posting certain types of abuse or spam. This limited advice is in reality an attempt to limit the liability of the website owner and is neither useful nor actionable safety advice for victims.
Affecting concern for the victims, but more probably anxious about the decline in advertising revenue, Ask.fm last month instructed a well-known London law firm to conduct an audit of their site and make recommendations as to its safety features. We understand that Ask.fm has promised changes to their policies in three key areas: reporting and moderation, registration and corporate visibility.
To achieve this Ask.fm says it is aiming to introduce a new "bullying/harassment" button and will investigate all reports of abuse within 24 hours. Currently Ask.fm has only 50 moderators but say that by January 2014 they will have recruited more to review complaints of abuse and bullying.
Additionally, more prominence is to be given to the ability of Ask.fm users being able to 'opt out' of receiving anonymous replies.
And what could be a powerful tool for victims is this: users will also be required to register fully to access all areas of the site and to provide an email address upon sign-up. Ask.fm believes that this will allow them to "capture the email and IP addresses of users and be better equipped to deal with reports". But it does not go far enough. If Ask.fm 'captures' the identities and IP addresses of all users there is still no promise to reveal this to a legitimate complainant considering legal action.
Pressure is being brought elsewhere. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that websites such as Ask.fm should be boycotted by its users. Several companies including Specsavers, Vodafone, Laura Ashley and the Save the Children charity have all pulled their advertising from the site. Surprisingly, however, Mr Cameron believes that there is already legislation in place to deal with such behaviour (in the form of inciting hatred and inciting violence) and has said that it is site operators who need to 'step up to the plate and clean up their act and show some responsibility'. Personally, I cannot see the reach of the CPS extending to Latvia in cases such as these.