Globe Editorial

Facebook takes on bullying — but only up to a point

March 12, 2011

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FACEBOOK HAS more than 500 million users, including almost half of all Americans. Its power is enormous: the site helped elect a president in the United States and topple one in Egypt.

But Facebook, like Craigslist, Google, and other Internet companies steeped in the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley, has often seemed disturbingly blasé about its own power — which is why the company’s new initiative against cyberbullying is such a welcome sign.

Unveiled at a White House conference Thursday, the new tool itself amounts to a modest improvement. A feature on the social networking site will allow users to report cyberbullying directly to a trusted adult, in addition to Facebook itself. “Social reporting’’ aims to involve adults who know the students involved and can intervene before cyberbullying spirals out of control.

But the announcement may be most notable because it shows that Facebook is taking its corporate responsibilities more seriously. It and other Internet companies have routinely fallen back on the defense that they only create tools and release them into the world — and then bear no responsibility for how those tools are used.

Craigslist famously refused to take down a section of its site festooned with thinly veiled prostitution ads until it was pressured into action by law enforcement. Google seemed astonished at the anger over products that displayed detailed satellite images of people’s backyards for all the world to see. And in the past, Facebook has weakened privacy protections on the site in ways that also compromise safety; one unpopular change to its privacy policies in 2009 exposed friend lists and other previously confidential information, in some cases providing fodder to cyberbullies. (The policy was amended to answer Facebook’s critics.)

Even after this week’s announcement, Facebook still has a ways to go. The link to report abuse is not prominent enough. Despite what Facebook claims is its “real-name’’ culture, bullies can easily set up fake accounts. And Facebook still does a poor job keeping children under 13 from joining in the first place; as many parents can attest, the age restriction is easily circumvented. And however firm its policies, Facebook still relies on users to enforce them. This is a reasonable philosophical stance, but it also spares Facebook the trouble and expense of more closely monitoring the vast social environment it has created.

Internet companies often liken their products to telephones and television, media with a myriad of uses that sometimes have unexpected ramifications. But they forget that telephone and television networks accepted the principle that groundbreaking technology must serve public purposes. Such networks were heavily regulated. Facebook is not, even though its influence, like that of Google, Twitter, and Craigslist, now surpasses that of many traditional industries. Taking action on cyberbullying is a hopeful sign that one of Silicon Valley’s leading outlets is accepting the responsibilities that come with success.