Internet safety experts have renewed warnings about Ask.fm, a Latvian- based website, after it boasted last week that it now has 50m registered users worldwide — making it one of the world’s most popular social networks.
The site is a questions and answers service and allows anyone to ask questions of other users anonymously. Much of its content contains bullying, sexualised, and derogatory remarks.
In August last year, before the deaths of Ciara Pugsley, 15, from Leitrim, and Erin Gallagher, 13, from Donegal — both secondary school girls who faced a vicious campaign of anonymous online bullying on Ask.fm — the website had just 15m users.
However, despite the public backlash against the site here, its popularity has exploded worldwide, with about 35m people signing up since the tragedies.
It is not clear how many Irish young people have joined but it is known to be extremely popular among Irish teenagers.
In November, Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald contacted the Latvian government over Ask.fm. Her department says her concerns have been acknowledged but have no further details on what action had been taken against the site in its host country.
Despite this intervention, the site has grown significantly and according to posts on its official Facebook and Twitter feeds is hiring new staff, including a web designer, and has moved to new offices in Riga, Latvia’s capital.
Paul C Dwyer, the Dublin-based president of the International Cyber Threat Task Force and founder of StopCyberbullies.ie, said he is “horrified” by its growth and believes anonymous websites like Ask.fm should be avoided at all costs.
Mr Dwyer also called on the Government to put renewed pressure on its Latvian counterpart in an effort to get Ask.fm shut down.
“It would appear that despite these tragic deaths, Ask.fm is going from strength to strength — and that’s a very bad thing from the perspective of keeping young people safe online.
“If you look at the success of sites like Ask.fm, people become millionaires out of this stuff. They are basically lining their pockets through the misery of other families.
“These sites are just a form of hatred, it’s that raw to me, I just think it’s disgraceful that this sort of stuff is out there.
“The more controversial, more nasty the site is the more money they are making because they are creating traffic on their website and feeding this negative hatred — and making a living out of it.”
Its owners have previously vowed never to give up the identities of other users, which makes it extremely difficult for anyone to find out who is targeting them through the site.
Nobody from the site, including founders Mark and Ilja Terebin, responded to several requests for comments.