Whatever happens in real life happens quicker on Facebook.  Only six years after it began, Facebook
already has a criminal underclass. The latest entry on the charge sheets comes
from Australia where vandals defaced tribute pages to murdered children.

Elliot Fletcher, a 12-year old schoolboy, was stabbed to death at a
Brisbane school last month. Shocking photos and comments were quickly added to
the site and only taken down after an uproar. Only days later, vandals struck
the tribute page of Trinity Bates, a little girl who had been abducted and
murdered.

The Australian Communications Minister sent a “please explain” note to
Facebook. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh wrote a letter (that’s so last
millennium!) to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking Facebook to
stop tribute pages being vandalized.

Facebook is self-policing. Its users are encouraged to complain if they
see something hateful or defamatory. Its managers remove offensive material as
soon as they become aware of it. What these Australian cases suggest is that
this may not be enough. Some countries may think that Facebook is responsible
for ensuring that offensive material is never posted in the first place.

This is going to be tough.

It takes daring to vandalise with a spray can, but it takes much less
guts to vandalise someone’s Facebook wall. Now while it can be cleaned up
fairly easily, the trick is how to find it and remove it quickly enough. Just
as city councils employ graffiti removers, perhaps governments should employ
full-time e-graffiti busters, who search and destroy all day long. Facebook is
worth $11 billion USD and employs 1000 people to develop the site and monitor
its 400 million users. Surely it could employ a few more people.

There is little legal consensus about the
new “continent
” that Facebook has been described as. An Italian
court recently convicted Google executives
for hosting a video of boys
taunting a boy with Down’s syndrome. The conviction stood, albeit with
suspended sentences, even though Google took action and had removed the video
when alerted to it.

This is a much higher standard of responsibility than for those in the real
world. Would a council be convicted for not reacting quickly enough to
offensive graffiti on a billboard? Or what about a mobile phone carrier for
allowing threats and offensive messages to be sent over its network?

The legal grey area is growing and the issue is that the people faced
with the decisions are growing grey. They aren’t as speedy as the young
IT-savvy users. There’s a ‘techno-legal lag’ and the lag is getting longer. The
Australians are moving more cautiously than the Italians on this issue and are
considering appointing an online ombudsman. However Australia is leading the legal
field by broadening the definition of service of court documents. An Australian
court upheld the serving
of documents
to be validly effected through Facebook, and then a New
Zealand court
clicked “like” and followed suit.

Cyber-vandalism is one problem to be solved. What about contempt of
court?

There is concern about the proliferation of Facebook comments, groups
and pages that form and collect public opinion about crimes, thereby placing
criminal trials in jeopardy. An Australian academic recently
questioned
how the State could deliver justice to those accused of crimes
and in front of a jury possibly misled by passionate public sentiment stirred
up through a Facebook group.

The immediacy of the internet, along with the potential anonymity of
users provides a lethal cocktail. Repeat sex offender Peter
Chapman
was jailed for life in the UK this week after admitting that he
killed a 15-year old girl he had groomed deceptively via Facebook, by posing as
a boy. Should Facebook guarantee the identities of its users?

Certainly lawmakers can do more to assist the identification of
criminals online. Late last year, the state of New
York
enabled the booting of 3,533 convicted sex offenders off Facebook and
MySpace through its 2008 Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators
Act (e-STOP) law. However good this may be to prevent further offences, it
doesn’t stop them being dangerous predators in the first place.

The whole area of privacy is intriguing, as many are surprisingly lax
with what they share. Most people are happy to sign away their privacy, clicking
“Agree to Terms and Conditions” without even reading them. They are carefree
with their Facebook photos, even though they know that any photo they are in
can be seen by all sorts of third parties including parents, teachers and
possible future employees.

For instance, by posting
photos
of herself with a new lover, a British lady prompted her
ex-boyfriend to allegedly board a plane from Trinidad and stab her to death.

Last year, a US
medical technician
was called to a crime scene. He took photos of the
murder victim and posted them on Facebook. He was fired. An Israeli raid on a
village in Gaza was recently
called off
after an Israeli soldier shared the information about the place
and time of the raid on Facebook. He was later court-marshaled and suspended.
Before the digital revolution, a newspaper could have been fined or even closed
for publishing material which endangered national security. Why not Facebook?

And how about addiction? Courts have held that owners of pubs and bars
have some responsibility for their patrons’ behaviour after leaving the
premises. If they serve someone who is obviously inebriated and he kills
someone in his car going home, the bartender, in some jurisdictions, shares
responsibility. Now consider this: a couple was recently arrested in
South Korea
for letting their own child starve to death at home while they
spent long hours each day nurturing a virtual child in a nearby internet café.

A website like Facebook works hard to make using it as addictive as
possible. Is it responsible for any of the consequences of that addiction? And
what if criminals use information gleaned from Facebook to commit crimes? Is
Facebook an accessory?

Up to now, Facebook has worn its civic
responsibilities pretty lightly. Its Privacy Policy clearly states: “We will not share your
information with advertisers without your consent. We allow advertisers to
select characteristics of users they want to show their advertisements to and
we use the information we have collected to serve those advertisements.”

But Facebook basically only makes money if it shares its users’
information with advertisers. So it is constantly trying to both confuse and
entice users into disclosing as much as possible. This built-in conflict of
interest was responsible for Facebook’s most notorious error of judgment:
Beacon.

In 2007 Facebook launched a new application called Beacon which basically
posted individual’s web browsing activities in the “News Feed” on their wall
for all to see. Without any notice to users, Beacon was an opt-out system and
caused outrage. Eventually Facebook apologized and
changed to an opt-in system.

Advertisers are falling over each other to
pat Mark Zuckerberg on the back
. This week Zuckerberg was named Media
Person of the Year at the 57th Cannes Lions International Advertising
Festival. They are obviously more than happy with the work he is doing.
But should users be happy?

It’s time for Facebook to grow up. Mark Zuckerberg has created a
powerful tool for social interaction. But with great power comes great responsibility.
Is Facebook ready?


Alex Perrottet is a freelance journalist in Auckland, New Zealand.

Alex Perrottet is an Australian journalist currently living in New Zealand and the contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch.