Irish safety expert to advise teen site Ask.fm on how to beat cyberbullies

Controversial website Ask.fm has appointed an international team of safety advisers, including an Irish expert, in its latest bid to rescue the social media company’s reputation.

The five-member advisory board, based in the US, Britain and Ireland, will be tasked with helping Ask.fm develop policies and procedures to deal with online bullying and manipulation of its largely teenage user base.

The website, which was linked to a number of teen suicides here and abroad, moved its headquarters to Dublin late last year.

It said more safety meaures were on the way, including the appointment of a law enforcement liaison officer to work with the gardaí on issues of shared concern.

Dr Brian O’Neill of the Dublin Institute of Technology is the Irish member on the advisory board which, a spokesperson for Ask.fm said, is due to assemble for its first meeting shortly and will hold further discussions regularly by conference call.

Dr O’Neill, who is director of research, enterprise and innovation services at DIT, also serves as director of the EU Kids Online initiative in Ireland, is independent assessor of the ICT Coalition for Children Online in the EU and is chair of the Government’s Internet Content Governance task force.

“Children’s use of both the internet and mobile devices continues to shift rapidly, and key to ensuring youth safety online is an understanding of what motivates them, and their use of the technology,” he said.

“I look forward to teaming up with my peers in this space and guiding Ask.fm toward evidence-based strategies to keep younger audiences safe and responsible as they navigate their digital worlds.”

The other members are John Carr of the UK’s Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety; Anne Collier, founder of the US-based site netfamilynews.org; Marsali Hancock, CEO of iKeepSafe.org and Dr Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Centre at the University of Wisconsin.

Doug Leeds, CEO of US based parent company, Ask.com, who bought Ask.fm from its much criticised Latvian owners last year, said the appointment of the safety advisory board was just the latest milestone in the overhaul of Ask.fm.

“It won’t be a quick or easy process, but step by step we are methodically tackling safety issues on Ask.fm, and are as committed as ever to making the site a safer and more positive place,” said Mr Leeds.

The site, which now has 150m individual users logging on every month, works by allowing people to create online profiles and then invite questions, both secret and public, from both anonymous and named other users on any topic.

Its largely anonymous nature and predominantly teenage user base has attracted accusations that it is a haven for cyberbullies, perverts and even extreme Islamist groups keen to recruit western Jihadists.

Ask.fm says since its take-over last year, it has substantially increased the number of online conversations it monitors and has made it easier for users to block and report unwanted contacts.

It also says it plans to develop partnerships with leading mental health and suicide prevention organisations to ensure it can provide support for users in crisis.

The new advisory board will work under the stewardship of Ask.fm’s newly appointed chief trust and safety officer, Catherine Teitelbaum who previously worked with Yahoo and the Family Online Safety Institute and was also involved with numerous government online safety taskforces in the US.

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