Rehtaeh Parsons: Improve Social Media Safeguards to Stop Child Exploitation, says Group

Nova Scotia teen could have been spared re-victimization, says former Crown prosecutor
By Justina Reichel, Epoch Times
April 17, 2013 Updated: April 17, 2013

In reaction to the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy, an organization co-founded by children’s entertainer Raffi is calling on both industry and government to do more to protect children from exploitation online.

The Red Hood Project, which aims to make social media safe for young users, was formed in response to B.C. teen Amanda Todd’s suicide. Todd took her own life last year after being stalked by a sexual predator online and bullied by classmates after revealing photos of her were circulated.

“Our objective is to get social media much, much more involved in terms of taking accountability for their own sites, and the content that is on their sites,” says Red Hood co-founder and former Crown prosecutor Sandy Garossino.

“They’ve got to get involved in putting a stop to the kind of thing that we’ve seen with the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Audrey Pot, Amanda Todd—the list literally goes on and on.”

Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide earlier this month after she was allegedly gang raped in 2011 by four boys and then relentlessly harassed and bullied by classmates when a photo of the attack was shared on social media.

Garossino says by overhauling consumer protection, product liability, and corporate social responsibility in social media—to make it safer by design—teens like Parsons and Todd could have been spared repeated re-victimization.

“Graphic images of Rehtaeh’s victimization were posted to Facebook, a $66 billion company,” says Garossino.

“Facebook has the capacity to develop world-leading technology and hire tens of thousands of employees to actively control its site and protect children. Instead, it relies on a model of volunteer reporting of offensive material already posted, which is too late for kids like Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd.”

Canadian lawmakers, she adds, should be taking the lead by demanding Facebook and other social media companies improve child protection measures such as age verification of child users, disabled location and web browser tracking, default privacy settings for children and youth, and firewall protection for children’s data online.

“We think that if Facebook was facing something like a $10 million fine every time someone posted the image of a gang rape of a child on their site they would stop it, and they would stop it tomorrow,” says Garossino.

“This is like alcohol—there should be age limits and there should be different rules for young people. The social media industry needs to inform itself when its users are youth, and then it needs to have a completely different set of rules for youth.”

Facebook asked to lead change

In November 2012, the Red Hood Project issued an open letter to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, imploring her to champion child protection online and to lead change in the social media industry safety standards. The letter was signed by Amanda Todd’s mother Carol Todd, former prime minister Kim Campbell, Raffi, Garossino, and many others.

Facebook did not respond, although a representative of the company’s Safety Advisory Board participated in a debate about online safety with Garossino on the CBC program, “Q” in November.

On the program, Facebook representative Parry Aftab said the company already has many safety measures in place, and more would lead to too much surveillance. He also argued that parents and society in general need to take more responsibility for what children are doing online.

“What I fear is that we’re asking Facebook and other technology companies to parent our children, instead of taking responsibility of making the decisions and enforcing them in our own homes,” Aftab said.

‘Ensuring justice for Rehtaeh’

Meanwhile, in response to widespread outrage over the Parsons case, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter announced Monday that three independent reviews into the handling of the case will take place.

The reviews will investigate the actions of police and the Public Prosecution Service, as well as the Halifax Regional School Board, and will begin as soon as the criminal investigation into the case is completed.

“Nova Scotians want to continue to support Rehtaeh’s family in whatever way they can, and that includes ensuring that justice is done for Rehtaeh. Nothing can get in the way of that objective,” Dexter said in a statement.

“At the same time, I have promised that the province will review everything that led up to Rehtaeh’s passing.”

The reviews come after much public condemnation over the handling of Parson’s case. Despite photographic evidence of the rape having been distributed through Parson’s high school and community, no charges were laid against the boys involved.

However, in light of “new and credible information,” police re-opened the investigation last week. Hacktivist group Anonymous had said they had proof of the rapists’ identities and public confessions, and would release the names of the offenders if police did not respond.

To date, more than 420,000 people have signed a petition on demanding justice for Parsons and an independent inquiry into how the police handled the case.