Update: Facebook has responded to the accusations in a detailed statement.
A Northern Ireland man is suing Facebook after his 12-year-old daughter posted provocative photos on the social network. In the landmark writ, lodged in Belfast High Court on Monday, he claims that "photographic images and literary content" on the website have put his daughter in danger of attracting pedophiles. The father and daughter's names are being withheld to protect the girl's privacy.
The father's lawyer, Hilary Carmichael, says the photos, including one of the girl lifting her shirt, were "sexually explicit," but those have since been removed from Facebook. "She appears heavily made-up, she appears in a provocative pose and she appears much older than her 12 years."
Carmichael says her client argues Facebook needs to be held accountable because it does not properly enforce its own rules. "It relies on children stating their correct age and it doesn't have any checks in place," she told the BBC. "My own personal view is that Facebook isn't suitable for under-18s, but the company isn't even able to uphold its own policy of keeping under-13s out. An age check, like asking for a passport number would be a simple measure for Facebook to implement."
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that websites that collect information about users aren't allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13. As a result, Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities require users of the social network to be at least 13 years old (and even older, in some jurisdictions).
Millions of preteens use the service anyway: some get permission from their parents to create an account while others lie about their age to get past sign-up restrictions. Four months ago, it was estimated that 7.5 million Facebook users are below the minimum age. To make matters even more worrying, more than 5 million were 10-years-old or younger.
The girl, who is in the custody of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, has a history of behavioral problems. A writ has also been lodged against the institution where the girl is residing, alleging that the group was negligent for failing to prevent the child accessing Facebook. In addition to posting sexually explicit material, she also gave personal details including the area where she lives and the school she attends. The girl continued posting photos on a new page even after her father shut the original down. She reportedly received inappropriate text messages from men asking her to post sexual messages and photos on Facebook.
The writ, which targets Facebook Ireland as well as Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, California, alleges the company is "guilty of negligence" and creates "a risk of sexual and physical harm" to the child. It says that the father will seek an injunction ordering Facebook to close down his daughter's account and stop her from opening another one. If that doesn't happen, he will seek an injunction to stop Facebook from operating in Northern Ireland.
"I'm taking this case against Facebook as a last resort," the father told the Daily Mail. "I was horrified when I saw the photographs my daughter had posted of herself on the site. She is far too young to understand what she is doing. She suffers problems and engages in self-destructive behavior. She is currently receiving counseling.
The man also revealed his daughter had a history of running away. "She has done so several times," he added. "Once she was found in a derelict house. My grave concern is that she would go off with someone she met on Facebook."
If successful, the case could see Facebook having to pay the father a large compensation. It also raises an important question: who is responsible for the well-being of children on Facebook? I would argue both the social network and parents need to do more.