In all the years of bullying and online torment that eventually pushed Amanda Todd over the edge to suicide, there was one potential lifeline the B.C. teenager never had: the simple Internet safety button to contact police that is widely available to young people in the U.K. — but not in Canada or anywhere else.
A sort of 911 alarm for the Internet, the red button installed on many social media sites and on chat software in England allows young people — and their parents or any concerned citizens — to get in touch with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, a national police agency, with a single click of the mouse.
“It’s the biggest playground in the world — why wouldn’t we give young people the chance to reach law enforcement directly if they feel they are in trouble on the web?” says Jim Gamble, CEOP’s founder and former director, who started pushing Internet companies to install the button on their sites in 2006.
“If kids in the park can call police for help, kids in online spaces need to be able to call for help in the same way.”
Carol Todd, in one of the rare media interviews since her daughter’s death three weeks ago, told the Star that anything that makes help for troubled teens more visible on the web would be a good thing.
“If there was a 911 button for Internet safety, that might be helpful,” she said in an email, noting that in the offline world there are 24-hour hotlines for children in distress. “In the darkest moments, everything seems to shut down and that’s why they say they feel all alone.”
But so far in Canada there has been no push by police or major Internet companies to set up a single-click, national help button, even though many agree it would be a good idea.
“If you have something like that, it would be more than appreciated,” says Insp. Bob Resch, the officer in charge of operations for the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre (NCECC) in Ottawa.
“There is just not enough support out there of any kind that could reach all children at all times. So the more we have out there, the more chances that we will be able to get to that child in need. If it amounts to saving one child in 10 years, it’s worth it.”
CEOP says that in the U.K., every day it gets about two “Grade 1” urgent requests for help in which there is an immediate “risk to life” of a child. In all, last year the centre fielded 16,500 reports, about one-fifth from the public and the rest from industry.
“We have seen that where the ClickCEOP button has been embedded, children and young people will use it,” says Peter Davies, the current chief of CEOP.
Davies also notes the button is a “visible deterrent” to predators, according to interviews CEOP has done with arrested sexual offenders. “Many stated they would avoid areas (on the Internet) with direct connections to the police.”
But a safety button in Canada would require money to run it and trained professionals to answer calls for help.
The RCMP’s NCECC has roughly the same investigative and child-protection mandate as the U.K.’s CEOP, but with only a fraction of the resources. It is not equipped to handle calls for help from young people or tips from the public.
The NCECC website suggests instead that people call 911 or the local police if they know a child is in “immediate risk,” and in other cases urges citizens to contact Cybertip.ca with any reports of “online sexual exploitation.”
Based in Winnipeg, Cybertip.ca is the national public resource for reporting online sexual exploitation. Although it celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, it is still not a household name.
Unlike the CEOP button built into popular children’s websites, Canadians have to search for Cybertip.ca to make a report.
The tip line, supported by government and Internet companies, gets about 1,000 reports a month from the public, and about one-fifth are passed on to Canadian law enforcement agencies.
One tip in 2011 was about the image of a partially naked Amanda Todd that, much to the B.C. girl’s shame, was being widely circulated on the Internet.
After being hounded by an unknown Internet predator who Amanda said lured her into sending him a topless photo of herself and then pursued her relentlessly on Facebook, the 15-year-old girl from Port Coquitlam committed suicide last month.
“Our job is to do triage,” says Lianna McDonald, the executive director of the non-profit Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which runs Cybertip. “Part of the challenge is making children aware that there is help and resources available.”
There have been scattered attempts across Canada to develop online reporting tools for children, but nothing integrated directly into browsers or websites and nothing directly tied to law enforcement.
In B.C., as far back as 2005, the Surrey school district set up a website that allows students to report bullying anonymously. It gets between 50 and 80 complaints a year. Now the provincial government has plans to expand the project.
Many Canadian web portals and social media networks like Facebook and Twitter offer their own company web pages that allow users to report abuse — from spamming to harassment — although some help sites can be far from user-friendly.
Former CEOP director Gamble likens these internal complaint sites to calling the front desk of a hotel when there is an intruder in your room — it’s a good option, but you should also be able to call the police directly.
“There are times when what you need is law enforcement and you need them as quickly as possible,” he said in a phone interview from London, where he now works at a company developing web safety tools.
The major global software companies operating in the U.K. have worked with the police to modify their most popular web browsers so users there can download versions of Firefox, Google Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer with the Internet safety button embedded in them.
Facebook was pressured into adopting a ClickCEOP button application in the U.K. in 2010 after a man was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a teenager he lured on the site. The app has since been downloaded more than 55,000 times.
A spokesperson for Facebook Canada says there are no plans to institute a similar project here, noting that some Facebook users in the U.K. were put off once they realized using the CEOP button or app was the same as filing an official police report.
“People don’t go to Facebook as a place where they would contact law enforcement,” she says. “Facebook is more about telling your friends and family when you feel that something’s not okay.”
She noted Facebook has promoted a stop-bullying campaign on its site in the U.S., and there are plans to soon expand that into Canada and other countries, working with community groups and schools.
Child safety experts agree there cannot be a “one size fits all” solution to reporting online abuse and a police safety button has to be part of a wider array of help.
“Kids are kids,” says McDonald of Cybertip.ca. “Sometimes they get in over their heads, they might be fearful of what they’ve done and reluctant to push that button.”
Carol Todd agrees. She notes her daughter Amanda had a list of crisis line phone numbers on the bulletin board in her bedroom, but she still ended up taking her own life.
“Kids on the Internet don’t feel like they are in danger and don’t realize it until after their actions,” Todd says. “It has to be determined what is safe and unsafe. That discussion has to happen in schools, over the dinner table and kids with their peers.”
Gamble says if a teenager like Amanda decided to contact authorities while the abuse was ongoing and could do so online easily, police would have a much better chance of catching the predator in the act.
The RCMP in B.C. say they now have 20 to 25 full-time investigators trying to find Amanda’s online tormentors, but some of the digital trails may have gone cold.
It is still not clear if, when or how Amanda’s family reached out to police about the bullying and cyber-stalking she faced in the time leading up to her suicide.
In an earlier interview with the Vancouver Sun, however, she said that some time before her daughter killed herself, the family did approach police seeking help in identifying her cyber-stalker.
“The police investigated and investigated, it got traced to somebody in the United States,” she said. “But they never found him. Those people are very good at hiding their tracks.”
Sources tell the Star that the RCMP is now working with U.S. law enforcement and Facebook to follow whatever digital leads they can find.