Paedophile 'alarm button' was rejected by Facebook, say police

Social networking site defends safety policy despite killer meeting victim online
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The Independent Online

Senior police officers last night accused Facebook of having inadequte child protection safeguards following the rape and murder of teenager who met her killer on the networking site.

Peter Chapman, a convicted sex offender, used Facebook to lure 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall to her death. Chapman, 33, set up a fake profile on the site – complete with stolen photographs – to pretend he was a boy of 19.

Yesterday, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which is responsible for tracking and prosecuting the country's worst sex offenders, said Facebook had so far refused to introduce an official "alert button" with which youngsters could report suspicions that they were being "groomed" by online paedophiles or targeted by cyber-bullies.

The tool, developed by CEOP in 2006, is used by other networking websites including Bebo and MSN Messenger but Facebook has refused to incorporate it into its website. Jim Gamble, the CEOP chief executive, criticised the failure to include the alert button.

Of the 267 reports that the CEOP received about suspicious activity on Facebook last year, 43 per cent concerned grooming but "only one or two" came from Facebook itself, he said.

"The vast majority are coming from people who are, ironically, having to go to other sites that have our button and send the report to us. That is just not good enough," Mr Gamble added.

Facebook insists its reporting system is good enough to handle reports of grooming, which are dealt with by staff who liaise with police. "We have reporting buttons on every page of our site and continue to invest heavily in creating the most robust reporting system to support our 400 million users," said a spokeswoman.

But Mr Gamble insisted: "Their argument for not putting our button into their environment, in my opinion, doesn't hold water. The button is a deterrent to offenders and provides users with a choice of either going to their social network provider or to CEOP for a range of advice and help.

"Why would anyone want to speak to a service provider about illegal activity and not come straight to us?

"We have seen teenagers driven to suicide, as well as being groomed by sex offenders. We need to demand a greater and more ethical approach from social networking giants. I fear we will be sitting here again in a few weeks while I trot out the same words like a broken record."

Facebook was also attacked by Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, who said it was "disappointing" that the site had not installed the button advocated by the CEOP. He added: "Until Facebook act on this, their protestations that they care passionately about the safety of people who use their site will look like empty words."

Mr Huhne also questioned the suitability of the sex offenders' register in the digital age after it emerged that Chapman's internet access was unrestricted despite him having been registered for nine years after serving a prison sentence for rape.

In a letter to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, Mr Huhne wrote: "It would surely be a sensible precaution both to log the internet and email address of sex offenders, and to make those confidentially available to the social networking sites ... so that activity could be monitored."

Meanwhile, Merseyside Police, which was meant to have been monitoring Chapman, referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission yesterday after it admitted losing track of him. Chapman was required to tell police of any change of address within three days, but did not do so.

After realising he had left his home in Kirkby early last year, the force waited nine months before issuing a national alert. It transpired that Chapman had moved to County Durham, where he murdered Ms Hall.