IAC Agrees To Work With Regulators On Cyberbullying Protections Following Ask.fm Deal

IAC-owned search company Ask.com has acquired the beleaguered anonymous Q&A social network, Ask.fm. The news was first reported by The New York Times this morning, and IAC and Ask.fm have also confirmed the news to TechCrunch. Alongside the deal, IAC has inked an agreement with the attorneys general of New York and Maryland, who have outlined policies to try to curb cyberbullying on Ask.fm – a controversy that has dented the company’s reputation significantly in recent months.

Terms of the acquisition were not being disclosed, but the two sites seem to have more in common with each other than just their names.

Ask.com is today a Q&A-like service after ceding the search battle to Google in years past. Meanwhile, Ask.fm is also a Q&A service, but one devoted to asking your friends questions, either publicly or anonymously.

That latter feature actually got Ask.fm in trouble in recent months, as teens began using the site to anonymously cyberbully others – a trend that the small, Latvian startup Ask.fm was unprepared to face. The cyberbullying on the site became so fierce that Ask.fm was cited in a number of teen suicides as being a contributing factor. The company went on PR lockdown for some time, then later re-emerged with a new “safety policy” designed to protect its sensitive, young users.

But the damage to Ask.fm’s reputation was done. Many parents had become aware of the site thanks to the news stories, and banned and blocked their kids from using it.

Despite Ask.fm’s problems, the service still had a significant user base at the time of the acquisition – the company has 180 million monthly users in over 150 countries, 40 percent younger than 18. Ask.fm sees an estimated 20,000 questions per minute with approximately 45 percent of its mobile monthly active users logging in daily. To date, the mobile app has been downloaded more than 40 million times, says IAC, a media and Internet company.

The deal gives Ask.com a viable entry point into social networking. (Ask.com has “over 100 million” global users, for reference.)

“This acquisition extends Ask.com’s Q&A brand leadership to Ask.fm’s massive mobile-focused social platform,” said Doug Leeds, chief executive officer, Ask.com, in a release out this morning. “It’s a natural entry into a market segment and platform where Ask.com has been looking to expand.”

IAC tells us there are no plans to integrate Ask.com or Ask.fm from a product or operations perspective at this time.

However, Ask.fm’s current leadership, co-founders Ilja and Mark Terebin, are being replaced as a part of this deal.

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Ask.com Agrees To Work With Regulators On Cyberbullying Protections

However, because of the issues around children’s safety, Ask.com says it made it a priority to proactively engage with regulators who had previously voiced concerns with the platform under its pre-existing ownership. Those efforts have resulted in agreements that are also being formally announced today.

Specifically, Ask.com partnered with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler to create parallel agreements under which Ask.fm will implement a set of best practices focused on increasing the safety of its services.

Under IAC, Ask.fm will revamp its safety policies and procedures beyond what the startup had itself done, which includes creating a new online Safety Center, hiring a trust and safety officer to act as a primary safety contact, and establishing a Safety Advisory Board to oversee all safety issues. Millions of dollars will be spent on improving moderation.

The site has agreed to review user complaints within 24 hours and remove users that have been the subject of multiple complaints, in order to cut down on the bullying problem.

An independent safety and security examiner will be appointed to examine the changes and report on compliance to the Attorney General’s Office for three years, too. And the site will work with a suicide prevention hotline, which will train moderation and risk management staff and provide other resources. It will also register with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and comply with reporting requirement of sexual exploitation images.

Children under 13 will be blocked from using the site. And finally, it will adopt a tool for third parties or parents to report that a child had created an account or posted to Ask.fm, and to request deletion of the account.

C8932C7D-A08B-40A4-BAAD-6BC71889FD6CIn addition to the many changes, Ask.fm/Ask.com has appointed digital safety veteran Catherine Teitelbaum, former director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo, to the newly-created role of Chief Trust and Safety Officer at Ask.fm.

The new tools and policies, which IAC says believes will “materially” enhance safety within six months, are not all that dissimilar from what other, larger social networking services do today. But they may end up dampening Ask.fm’s appeal to the fickle teen audience it serves.

After all, Ask.fm drew in the crowd in the first place because it was an uncensored playground of sorts, and that is now changing.