Facebook has come under attack from Britain's most senior police officers, who have criticised the social-networking giant for refusing to adopt a "panic button" which would allow victims of online sexual grooming to report their concerns directly to the authorities.
The social-networking site yesterday announced that it would adopt the "button", designed by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), on one page of its site – a page which appears when users have already decided to report abuse. But it is still refusing to adopt the button on every page of its site, as requested by Britian's online protection agency, because it claims that to do so could create "additional complexity" and may result in fewer people reporting grooming.
Yesterday, in a letter signed by chief constables from 43 police forces across Britain, senior police officers said that the steps taken by the social-networking giant are not good enough.
Facebook's announcement came after Jim Gamble, the chief executive of CEOP, travelled to Washington DC to discuss the implementation of the "button" on each page of the website, allowing Facebook users to report suspicions of sexual grooming directly to the authorities.
After the four-hour meeting, which both sides said was "constructive", Facebook said that it would introduce a link to CEOP's reporting system which would appear when users decided to report abuse via the site's own measures. It also said it would invest £5m in education about how to stay safe online – a relatively tiny amount for a company valued at more than £9bn.
While acknowledging the concessions, Mr Gamble said the situation was still not satisfactory. "The critical issues remain unresolved," he said. "We believe that – without the deterrence provided by direct visible access to the CEOP button on every page – children will not be empowered, parents cannot be reassured and the offender will not be deterred.
"During yesterday's constructive meeting with Facebook they did not say 'No' to the button. We are hopeful that, once theyhave considered their position, they will take the critical final step to make their environment safer by adopting the direct CEOP link."
The police officers' letter, sent to Facebook, said: "In the real world we do not filter reports through another organisation or company; the individual simply picks up a phone or visits their local police station. The 'CLICK CEOP' mechanism offers such a reporting service for the 21st-century citizen."
The argument over whether the button should be adopted by the site came up again last month when Peter Chapman, 33, was jailed for raping and murdering 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall after luring her to her death by posing on Facebook as a 19-year-old boy. Mr Gamble pointed out that other social-networking sites such as Bebo had introduced the button and he could seen no reason why Facebook would not.
And, last week, Mr Gamble said that in the first quarter of this year CEOP had received 253 reports concerning grooming activity on Facebook, yet only one came from the Facebook team operating its own internal reporting mechanism.
Previously the website's stance has been attacked by Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman. And yesterday's letter includes the signature of Sir Paul Stephenson, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Britain's most senior officer. Mr Gamble said: "If they don't adopt the button we are simply not going to go away. We need to protect the children of the UK."
Last night Facebook defended its new measures and insisted it was committed to protecting its users from online paedophiles.
Richard Allen, Facebook's director of policy for Europe, said: "We completely accept that our users should be able to report abuse directly to CEOP but we disagree on the best design solution to implement that.
"From our experience, 'buttons' produce less good results in terms of people actually reporting abuse. They intimidate and confuse people. We think our simple text link is a far more effective solution.
"All we are saying is that when it come to the specifics of how to design online reporting systems we have considerable expertise."
Panic button: The supporters
Founded in 1884, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is one of the most recognisable child cruelty charities. It is also among the largest, employing around 2,500 staff. It merged with Childline, another big child welfare charity, in 2006.
An anti-bullying charity focused on helping youngsters lead campaigns in their schools and communities. It says its work has reached 700,000 young people in the past five years.
The Association of Chief Police Officers is an independent body uniting the most important members of every police force in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. An umbrella organisation with the status of a private company, ACPO unites all 44 police authorities. Its 349 members all hold the rank of Chief Constable, Deputy Chief Constable or Assistant Chief Constable, or their equivalents.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was established by the Government in the wake of Dr Tanya Byron's report into digital child safety – it brings together representatives from across the UK internet safety industry in an advisory capacity. It does not have lobbying power as such; instead, it brings together groups dedicated to the protection of children, aiming to inform policy.
£9.1bn Estimated valuation of Facebook as of January, at a share price of £21 each
400m The number of "active" Facebook users.
100m The number of people who access Facebook from their mobile phones worldwide.
60m The number of status updates posted each day.
£42m Paid to Divya Narendra and Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss after they accused the site of stealing their ideas.
24m The number of Facebook users in the UK.
29m The number of people worldwide who play the third-party Facebook game "Farmville".
25 The number of complaints about Facebook received by Ceop in the first three months of this year, 99 of which were reported instances of grooming.