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Ask.fm insists changes will make controversial website ‘safer’

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 Ciara Pugsley

Ciara Pugsley

Bullying victim Erin Gallagher

Bullying victim Erin Gallagher

Hannah Smith who took her own life after receiving abusive messages on Latvian social networking website Ask.fm

Hannah Smith who took her own life after receiving abusive messages on Latvian social networking website Ask.fm

 Ciara Pugsley

Ciara Pugsley

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Ciara Pugsley

A CONTROVERSIAL website used by two Irish schoolgirls who ended their lives after enduring online bullying has introduced a range of changes it claims will enhance user safety.

Ask.fm is linked to the deaths of 13-year-old Erin Gallagher from Ballybofey, Co Donegal and 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley from Co Leitrim.

A third teenager girl Hannah Smith of Leicestershire, England took her own life two weeks ago after enduring months of bullying on website Ask.fm.

Co-founders of the website Ilja and Mark Terebin said an audit into the site and its safety features has now been completed, with it to include a more prominent "report button" on the site, and more staff hired to work as moderators.

Website bosses said it will also create an extra outlet for parents, as well as incentives to encourage people to register to use the site.

The question-and-answer website was heavily criticised in the wake of the death of Ms Smith two weeks ago, who endured months of torment on the site before being found hanged in her bedroom.

Specsavers, Vodafone, Laura Ashley, EDF Energy and charity Save the Children all pulled adverts from Ask.fm, which pledged to work with English police concerning the death and instructed law firm Mishcon de Reya to carry out the audit of its site and safety features.

The website also recently released data on the bullies who targeted Ciara and Erin to Gardai for investigation.

Ciara, from Co Leitrim, took her own life in September of last year.

Erin, who was from Ballybofey in Co Donegal, died five weeks later.

The separate incidents were linked to bullying on the Latvian-based social-media site, which allows members to post comments anonymously online.

Ask.fm has given gardai IP addresses for the cyberbullies – the details pinpoint where a computer was used when comments were posted. Gardai are using the information to locate the addresses of the computer users.

The site traced five IP addresses which were used to post vile comments to Erin in the days leading up to her death.

At least three IP addresses have been traced in Ciara's case.

In a statement today, the site's founders said: "At Ask.fm we want our users to be able to have fun, share information, make friends and express themselves freely. We also want them - particularly our younger users - to be able to do this in a safe environment.

"In the light of recent events highlighting the impact online bullying and harassment can have on young people, we engaged professional advisers to conduct a full and independent audit of our site and its safety features.

"This audit has now been completed. Based on the findings and the recommendations that were made, we can today announce our commitment to making changes to Ask.fm's existing policies in three core areas: reporting and moderation, registration, and corporate visibility."

Hannah's father, David Smith, who has called for an immediate change in the law to protect vulnerable youngsters and to prevent further tragedies, revealed today that he had banned Hannah from using the site, but she had carried on in secret.

Mr Smith told ITV's Daybreak programme: "I had already told Hannah to stay off Ask.fm because the school actually sent a text out saying 'Keep your kids off Ask.fm'. I told her to stay off it, but with Ask.fm it's very difficult to find it on the computer anyway."

The schoolgirl's sister Jo, who discovered her body on August 2, said Hannah, from Lutterworth in Leicestershire, also kept her use of the site a secret from her, setting up another Facebook account which she used as another way of accessing Ask.fm.

The 16-year-old said she herself had stopped using the website - which allows users to ask anonymous questions - after being called "horrible things" just months before her sister's death.

"I used it about four months ago and got called a slag and horrible things, so I stopped using it," she said.

"I didn't really get very nice questions - there were no nice questions."

Mr Smith called for "new regulations" to govern social media sites to "stop these trolls doing what they are doing" and criticised the anonymity afforded to online "trolls" by such sites and said "that needs to stop", while Prime Minister David Cameron called for a boycott of "vile" social networking sites that do not tackle abuse.

In its statement today, Ask.fm said its changes include reviewing all reports made using the report button within 24 hours, and hiring more staff to act as moderators, including a Safety Officer to take overall responsibility for moderation at the site.

The report button itself will be more prominent, the site said, and "bullying/harassment" will be introduced as a category alongside the existing categories of "spam or scam", "hate speech", "violence" and "pornographic content", and an option allowing users to opt out of receiving anonymous questions will be more prominent.

Amendments to the report button will be in place by September, while new members of the moderation team will be in place by January, and the button allowing users to opt out of receiving anonymous questions will be more prominent and accessible by October this year, the statement said.

In a bid to encourage people to register to use the site, unregistered users will not be able to access the same amount of features on the site as registered users. Efforts to encourage people to register, will mean the site will be able to record the email and IP addresses of users and deal better with reports, it said.

Founders of the site also plan to create a separate website, live in spring 2014, from its social network which will provide extra information for parents and others.

It added: "The number of users on Ask.fm has increased dramatically since our launch in 2010.

"As the site grows we recognise that it must also mature and adapt, not only to stay relevant and attractive to our users but to promote a safe and respectful environment.

"It is our hope that, as part of our continuing commitment to improve our site and its safety features, these changes will help achieve this."

PA Media