An Irishwoman who advises the UK Government on child safety online has been appointed chief safety officer of fast-growing youth web phenomenon Bebo.com, siliconrepublic.com has learned. Previously the director of the cyberspace research unit at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, Rachel O’Connell has emerged as a key authority in the UK on internet safety, advising the UK police, appearing on RTE and UK media and speaking at conferences on internet safety.
Social networking site Bebo.com is one of the fastest growing sites on the internet with a total of 24 million registered members turning more than 2.5 billion monthly page views. Aimed at school and university students and their respective alumni between the ages of 13 and 33, the site has been growing in popularity and notoriety in equal measures.
As fast as the site has been growing in popularity, debate and fears for the safety of students in terms of being targeted by paedophiles masquerading as teenagers or the site being used for bullying amongst minors have risen just as fast.
The company has strenuously moved to allay such fears, pointing to stringent measures taken by staff to police the site. Responding to questions from siliconrepublic.com, Bebo.com’s sales and marketing vice-president Jim Scheinman said: “The issue of online safety is of the utmost importance to Bebo. We take privacy and safety issues very seriously, which is why we were one of the first social networking sites to put up a safety tips link on our homepage and on every single page of the site helping teens and their parents on safety and cyber bullying issues. Further to this, Bebo works with many experts in the field. We have also hired a new chief safety officer who will be working with Bebo going forward.”
Speaking at the Irish Internet Association’s annual congress in Dublin last week, Scheinman again mentioned that the company had hired a new chief safety officer, this timing hinting it was an Irish woman.
Ironically, O’Connell had previously been critical of the social networking phenomenon. In an article in the Guardian in March she was reported as saying that because the etiquette of social networking sites is to post accurate information about the individual and to share photos, this flies in the face of internet safety advice.
O’Connell began investigating how paedophiles used the internet to get access to minors in 1996 as part of her PhD research as a psychology student at University College Cork. She spent five years poring over images of child abuse and interacting with paedophiles in chatrooms to understand how they organised abuse online. Often her work involved her posing as a chatroom child and led to her having to receive regular counselling.
She has gone on to advise the UK police and child protection agencies across the globe on how to track down child abusers. O’Connell also worked with Coronation Street writers to advise them on a storyline on the subject of online grooming by child abusers.
An announcement by Bebo.com on O’Connell’s appointment is envisaged this week, sources say.
By John Kennedy