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Facing up to responsibility

FacebookAs many a politician discovered in the run-up to the general election, a reputation can be easily destroyed by clumsy use of online self-promotion tools. It's become quite a game watching the fallout after another memorable clanger has been dropped, wondering which wannabe MP would mess up most spectacularly.

Our benchmark: if it becomes a catchphrase adopted by the masses - as The Guardian's ‘Step outside, posh boy' spoof of Gordon Brown was - we're impressed.

Not everyone has an excuse for making gaffes, however, and those well-accustomed to the way the web works have less excuse than the rest of us. Google CEO Eric Schmidt didn't endear himself to onlookers when he used a conference on the future of e-publishing to distance Google and ‘real' publishers from bloggers. As it happens, he had positive news to impart to the American Society of News Editors, but got bad press by upsetting the bloggers who had also been invited to attend.

Facebook is another company that should know better than its behaviour implies. Its founders have come under increasing pressure over the past month to make their site safer for young users. The site that was set up to allow school leavers and college friends to keep in touch once term was over is now being accused of failing the very people it originally sought to attract, and to whom it owes its success.

In its efforts to unite users from all over the world in one big happy family, Facebook routinely suggests friends of friends - and then friends of theirs too. Friendships are built on trust: if your teenage daughter receives a friend request from a friend of a friend who she's never met, she's likely to accept it anyway.

Online chat can lead anywhere, as many a rational adult has found to their embarrassment. Imagine how much worse it is if you're a teenager (Facebook accepts members aged 13 and up, although I know many members who are under 10) and you'll realise that things can become awkward.

Facebook has been used for many a campaign. Without its fan pages, in which anyone can comment and share, Greenpeace's pre-Easter campaign against Nestle would not have taken off in such spectacular style. But haranguing a multinational conglomerate is hardly the same as allowing bullying and worse to happen via the medium of communication you offer and can control.

Whether it's a belief in the principle of freedom of expression or a simple dislike at being told what to do, Facebook has refused to implement a ‘panic button' that upset youngsters can press if online interactions take an unwanted turn. Rival social network Bebo has had such a mechanism for some time.

Online enemies

Bullies are far from the only threat to web users' well-being. Scams, extortion and downright lies are all too common online. Hype around the launch of the Apple iPad and the clamour for tickets to the Fifa 2010 World Cup have inevitably lead to rogue sites and dealers targeting the vulnerable. With phishing and scam sites on the up, we were pleased to find improved alerts about fake websites and emails added to the latest batch of internet-security suites.

Security software is working valiantly to thwart chancers preying on those eager for a too-good-to-be-true offer. Meanwhile, it's the vulnerable youngsters who are being left exposed in the online world. Come on Facebook, it's about time you stood up and faced your critics.

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