Tuesday 20 August 2019

Controversial Ask.fm will retain anonymity despite links to deaths of bullied teenagers

Donegal schoolgirl Erin Gallagher (left) took her own life in October after she received a string of abusive messages on controversial site ask.fm. Her older sister Shannon (right) took her own life weeks later.
Donegal schoolgirl Erin Gallagher (left) took her own life in October after she received a string of abusive messages on controversial site ask.fm. Her older sister Shannon (right) took her own life weeks later.
Ciara Pugsley
Ask.fm logo
Ask.com boss Doug Leeds

Niall O'Connor and Adrian Weckler

CONTROVERSIAL social media site Ask.fm has vowed to retain its anonymous nature despite being linked to the deaths of several teenagers.

The website is moving to Ireland and faces a battle to rebuild its image after being bought by US online giant Ask.com.

The chief executive of parent firm Ask.com insists Ask.fm can provide a safer experience, with better protections for children who use its service and reassurance for parents.

However, the controversial anonymous nature of messaging on the site is here to stay, according to Doug Leeds (inset), the boss of Ask.com.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Leeds said that locating the service in Ireland would help protect Irish children and teenagers.

"For Irish people in particular, if you're going to have these services out there, it's better they're in Ireland than anywhere else," he said.

"When this service was based in Latvia, Irish young people were well able to access it anyway.

"But now we'll work with organisation such as Irish NGOs and the Irish Government.

"Safety is by far our number one priority right now."

Read more: We as parents need to educate ourselves and teach boundaries

Read more: Teenager's view: Ask.fm was huge craze but now faces battle for relevance

Ask.fm is a social network popular with teenagers and operates a questions and answers format.

Mr Leeds said that roughly half of the questions put on the site are anonymous.

However, he said that anonymity was a feature that was here to stay.

"If you remove anonymity, you don't make the safety situation better - because they just move somewhere else.

"The reason we got involved in this was because I believe we can build a service that maintains some anonymity but that is also safer than what else is out there.

"It means we're going to have spend money and hire the best people but that's what we're doing.

"For us, good safety practice now means good business practice."

Several teenagers, including Ciara Pugsley (15) from Leitrim and Donegal schoolgirl Erin Gallagher (13), took their own lives in 2012 after being subjected to cyberbullying via the website.

When news of its move here broke, the father of Ciara Pugsley called on the Government to prevent it coming here.

Jonathan Pugsley said he was left "shocked and angry" by the latest developments.

He is campaigning to ban websites that allow anonymous postings about people, saying they encourage "vile and horrible comments".

Serious concern had also been raised by a number of Government ministers about the proposal to move here.

But Mr Leeds said the website had now "significantly improved" protections for young people.

"I met [former children's minister and now trade minister] Charlie Flanagan in person," he said.

"He expressed some concern but said that he was impressed with the transparency and openness we're showing and the improvements we're making to the service."

A meeting between Ask.fm officials and the Department of Children took place last month ahead of the relocation of the company's headquarters to Dublin from Latvia.

Parental groups have cautiously welcomed to the social network's new approach.

"We and a number of other organisations have met with them at their request," said Aine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents Council.

"That's a lot more than the previous owners did."

She added: "They seem to be really going through the site to try and make sure that it's moderated better and that postings on it are more responsible.

"Still, from our point of view, it's a wait and see situation."

A spokesman for Children's Minister James Reilly said he and department officials had been assured steps were being taken to "significantly improve" protections on the website.

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly believes the decision to relocate in Ireland will ensure the Government can carry out greater monitoring.

But Mr Kelly, who represents Ireland South, said there was still considerable concern among parents over the children's use of the site.

"A very close eye needs to be kept on this company and other social media sites," he said.

"But I certainly believe that having them based in Dublin could be an advantage."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News