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Facebook survey about pedophiles raises concerns

Mar 05, 20184 mins
FacebookSecuritySocial Networking Apps

A Facebook survey asked users if men should be allowed to ask kids for sexual pictures. It later admitted the survey was 'a mistake.'

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Credit: Rob Schultz/IDG

Was Facebook trolling users when it offered a survey about pedophiles to a “small group” — meaning thousands of people? Or does the social network believe it is above the law?

The survey was short, but the questions were strange, pertaining to child grooming. Facebook specifically wanted to know how users think the social network should react when an adult male asks a 14-year-old girl for sexual selfies.

The survey was covered by both The Guardian and The Times; the answer choices were tweeted by the Guardian’s Jonathan Haynes.

One question asked:

There are a wide range of topics and behaviors that appear on Facebook. In thinking about an ideal world where you could set Facebook’s policies, how would you handle the following: a private message in which an adult man asks a 14-year-old girl for sexual pictures.

The multiple-choice answers included:

  • This content should be allowed on Facebook, and I would not mind seeing it.
  • This content should be allowed on Facebook, but I don’t want to see it.
  • This content should not be allowed on Facebook, and no one should be able to see it.

Another survey question revolved around setting Facebook’s policies.

When thinking about the rules for deciding whether a private message in which an adult man asks a 14-year-old girl for sexual pictures should or should not be allowed on Facebook, ideally who do you think should be deciding the rules?

The answer choices included:

  • Facebook decides the rules on its own.
  • Facebook decides the rules with advice from external experts.
  • External experts decide the rules and tell Facebook.
  • Facebook users decide the rules by voting and tell Facebook.

As Haynes pointed out, shouldn’t actual laws be considered when setting Facebook’s policies?

Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called the survey “stupid and irresponsible.”

“Adult men asking 14-year-olds to send sexual images is not only against the law, [but] it is completely wrong and an appalling abuse and exploitation of children,” Cooper told The Times. “I cannot imagine that Facebook executives ever want it on their platform, but they also should not send out surveys that suggest they might tolerate it or suggest to Facebook users that this might ever be acceptable.”

Facebook responds

As the survey set off widespread criticism on social media, Facebook took down the survey and issued this statement:

“We sometimes ask for feedback from people about our community standards and the types of content they would find most concerning on Facebook. We understand this survey refers to offensive content that is already prohibited on Facebook and that we have no intention of allowing so have stopped the survey.”

The Facebook spokesperson added:

“We have prohibited child grooming on Facebook since our earliest days; we have no intention of changing this, and we regularly work with the police to ensure that anyone found acting in such a way is brought to justice.”

That then begs the question: Why conduct such a survey in the first place?

Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product, told The Guardian’s Haynes that the survey was “a mistake.” Rosen tweeted:

We run surveys to understand how the community thinks about how we set policies. But this kind of activity is and will always be completely unacceptable on FB. We regularly work with authorities if identified. It shouldn’t have been part of this survey. That was a mistake.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.