After the tragic suicide of 15-year-old Leitrim girl and Ask.fm user, Ciara Pugsley last year, the site owners, Latvian brothers Mark and Ilja Terebin, did not even deign to respond to media queries.
Eventually they issued a controversial press release to RTÉ’s Frontline where they stated: “Of course there is a problem with cyberbullying in social media. But, as far as we can see, we only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all, trust me”.
“There are no complaints regarding cyberbulling from parents, children, or other sources in other countries. It seems like children are crueller in these countries [Ireland and UK].”
The brothers were blankly refusing to take any responsibility for the perceived danger on their site. Months later, their attitude remained similar — if possibly more offensive and insulting.
In an interview with the website ArcticStartup, Ilja Terebin said the site was being unfairly targeted by parents and media. This time he chose to blame parents rather than children.
“Kids lack attention, mainly because parents are doing other things such as watching TV, drinking beer and reading the tabloids. When they come to sites like these, they start trolling themselves so that their peers start protecting them. In this absurd way, they get the attention,” he said.
The sons of a wealthy former Russian army officer, the Terebin brothers used the family money to fund the online start-up three years ago bringing another three IT experts, Oskars Liepins, Valerijs Vesnakovs, and Klavs Sinka, on board at a later stage. In the past two years, the site’s popularity has soared and it’s increasingly accessed via Facebook or Instagram.
It now has 60m registered users and is estimated to be worth €58m.
The fun-loving brothers, described as very close, are now known in Riga for their opulent lifestyle and, up to recently, wild partying.
However the recent suicide of Hannah Smith, 14, in the UK has dragged the controversial site back into the headlines once again. Hannah had been urged by online bullies to cut herself and drink bleach and days later, she took her own life. Ciara Pugsley, 15, and Erin Gallagher, 13, also took their own lives following sustained bullying on the site last year and UK schoolboy Joshua Unsworth’s suicide was also attributed to Ask.fm bullying.
Yesterday, Ask.fm’s public relations consultants issued a lengthy open letter which hailed an entirely new attitude to internet safety from the brothers.
“We would like to reassure all users and parents of users that we are committed to ensuring that our site is a safe environment. We do not condone bullying of any kind, or any form of unacceptable use of our site,” it said.
The letter painstakingly listed multiple safety features on the site and repeatedly re-iterated their commitment to protecting children online.
“Our site has grown rapidly over the past year and one of our greatest challenges (like any fast growing business) has been ensuring that our internal resources and capabilities are able to expand at a proportional and appropriate rate. We strive to ensure we have the best people and this includes our moderators and customer services staff, where we have invested heavily to reflect this growth. We will continue to do this,” they said.