Ask.fm promises anonymity with responsibility

More than half of the 180 million users of site linked with cyber bullying aged under 18

Doug Leeds, chief executive of Ask.com, says he hopes the Ask.fm site can be used to campaign against online bullying.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Doug Leeds, chief executive of Ask.com, says he hopes the Ask.fm site can be used to campaign against online bullying. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

The chief executive of the company behind the Ask. fm website has defended his decision to maintain anonymity on the site, saying removing the feature would only send online bullies elsewhere.

Doug Leeds of Ask.com, the parent company of Ask.fm that has been linked to online bullying, says there is a “misconception” that anonymity means users cannot be identified. “If they’ve set up an account then they’ve given their details,” Mr Leeds told The Irish Times. “The key principle for us is anonymity with responsibility.”

Mr Leeds was in Dublin following the announcement earlier this month that the company will move from Latvia to the Ask.com European headquarters in Dublin. Ask.fm plans to hire for a “handful of positions” at the Dublin office, including law enforcement liaisons and moderators.

Online bullying

Two Irish teenagers, Ciara Pugsley (15) from Co Leitrim and Erin Gallagher (13) from Co Donegal, took their own lives in 2012 after being subjected to online bullying from anonymous users on the Ask.fm site.

Mr Leeds described the girls’ deaths as “absolutely heart-wrenching”.

“I have three daughters about the same age as Ciara and Erin and I know personally how devastated I am just thinking about any harm to them.”

Mr Leeds says the company has hired “the best safety experts in the world” to ensure a bully-free online environment.

“Safety has to come first,” he said. “You cannot build a service like this if you don’t have trust in it.”

Unique users

Ask.fm has 180 million unique users per month, half of whom are under 18. The number of Irish users has risen by 30 per cent in the last year after a dip following the deaths of Ciara and Erin.

Annie Mullins, director of safety in Europe for Ask.fm, worked with the founders of the site in Latvia before the ownership changeover.

“The founders were young, inexperienced and not used to dealing with public concerns,” said Ms Mullins.

Ms Mullins, who was awarded an OBE by the British government for her work on online safety guidelines, says Ask.fm is developing a new “digital parenting” strategy.

“Parents need to understand that anonymity has always been a part of growing up,” she said.

“Teenagers have always sought places to express themselves, to find space to ventilate their feelings.”

Mr Leeds says he hopes the site can be used to campaign against online bullying.

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