Ask.fm Makes Changes To Safety Policy Aimed At Combating Bullying In Wake Of Teen Suicide

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Ask.fm, a social network startup built around a Q&A format which has a predominantly teenage user-base, has announced changes to its safety policy after completing an internal audit of its procedures. This follows heightened concerns about bullying on the site, following the suicide of U.K. teenager Hannah Smith earlier this month. The 14-year-old had apparently received abusive messages from other Ask.fm users.

Ask.fm said today it will make the report button more visible, and will be adding a dedicated report category for ‘bullying and harassment’ — committing to making these changes next month. It also said it will increase the visibility of an (extant) option to opt-out of receiving anonymous questions to help users moderate the kind of content they receive from other users. This change will be implemented in October.

In addition, the startup said it will be hiring more staff — albeit, not until January — including a safety officer, to moderate comments on the site. Once it has the new staff in place it has committed to viewing all reports (made via its Report button) within 24 hours of receiving them.

It said it is also going to encourage more users to register by limiting the number of features unregistered users are able to access. Registered users will be required to give an email address upon signing up, and this will also allow Ask.fm to capture IP data — meaning users who troll others can be more easily tracked down. It’s not clear when these changes will be implemented.

Next Spring the startup will also launch a separate website to “act as an informational resource for parents and others” — containing info such as updates, Ask.fm’s contact information, and details of safety, privacy and moderation policies, presumably aimed at allaying parents’ concerns about their children using the service.

Speaking to TechCrunch in July, Ask.fm CEO and founder Ilja Terebin conceded that scaling up to deal with its rate of user growth had meant it hadn’t been able to “control everything”. Although he was also keen to point out that the service already offered users various tools to control what they received. At the time Ask.fm reported having 65 million registered users, up from 8 million in June last year, with around 300,000 new users being added per-day. Last June it apparently pulled in 190 million unique visitors.

As my TechCrunch colleague Sarah Perez recently pointed out, Ask.fm is by no means the first social network to run into problems with online bullying — albeit, that perhaps makes it even less defensible that the company has not made stronger provisions to deal with misuse/abuse of its service from the get-go. The criticism is that it’s been chasing traffic and user-numbers at the expense of the safety of an especially vulnerable user demographic.

Commenting in its statement today about the safety policy changes, Ask.fm said: “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.”

Ask.fm’s full statement about the changes follows below:

Ilja and Mark Terebin

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 advisors 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.

Reporting and moderation

We will commit to reviewing all reports made using the report button within 24 hours. To do this, we will hire more staff to act as moderators, including a Safety Officer to take overall responsibility for moderation at Ask.fm. The report button will be more prominent on the site itself, and “bullying/harassment” will be introduced as a category alongside the existing categories of “spam or scam”, “hate speech”, “violence” and “pornographic content”. Users who click this button will be directed to third party resources to help them.

 

It is already possible for Ask.fm users to opt out of receiving anonymous questions.  We will make this a more prominent and accessible feature.

 

  • ·         The amend to the report button and additional category will be completed and live on the site by September 2013.
  • ·         New members of the moderation team (including the Safety Officer) will be in place by January 2014.
  • ·         The button allowing users to opt-out of receiving anonymous questions will be more prominent and accessible by October 2013.

 

Registration

Currently users do not have an incentive to register to use the site. This will change. Unregistered users will not be able to access the same amount of features on the site as registered users. They will have to register if they wish to obtain full access to Ask.fm.  In this way, using an email verification upon sign-up, Ask.fm can capture the email and IP addresses of users and be better equipped to deal with reports.

 

Corporate visibility

We will create a separate website from the social network to act as an informational resource for parents and others. This website, besides containing our policies on safety, privacy and moderation (amongst others) will also set out Ask.fm’s purpose and values, up to date contact information for the company and the continuing work we will be doing to improve our site.

 

  • ·         The site will be live in Spring 2014.

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.