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Social networking giant Facebook said Thursday that it was considering whether to add a "panic button" to a sections of its British Web site following a tabloid outcry sparked by the kidnap, rape and murder of a teenager by a man she encountered on the popular online meeting place.
But Facebook's prospective moves -- which would include adding a one-click link to Britain's online child protection agency to its "Safety" section -- don't go far enough for British authorities, who want the bright red button posted prominently on the site's profile pages, which millions users visit every day.
The button would allow users to communicate directly with Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, which has its own team of specialist police officers. At the moment, Facebook says it quickly reports serious matters to law enforcement -- and that having a red panic button staring out from all its main pages might actually prevent some abuse from coming to light.
"Our experience of trying to put icons on the normal reporting flow is that it can reduce the number of reports," said Richard Allen, the director of policy for Facebook Europe, following a meeting with Home Secretary Alan Johnson. "Our experience is fewer reports, not more."
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center has lobbied Facebook to install a link to its site, and similar calls intensify periodically whenever a child is abused by someone he or she met on the site.
The recent conviction of a serial rapist for the murder of schoolgirl Ashleigh Hall, a 17-year-old who met him on the site, played prominently in Britain's tabloid press under headlines describing him as the "Facebook Killer." Facebook's refusal to include the button -- which appears on the MSN Live Messenger in the U.K. and AOL Bebo -- has drawn outrage from some quarters and promises of swift action from the government, which faces a tough election in the coming weeks.
But experts who study online child protection and education say the panic button issue is overblown.
"It's much easier to say: 'Let's put a panic button on Facebook' than to say: 'Let's address the issue of sexual abuse in homes,'" said Rebekah Willett, of the Institute of Education at the University of London. "It wins votes, it looks like the government's doing something. That's a common thing that happens with children and media."
Ellen Helsper, an expert in social media at the London School of Economics, said that "there's a lot of questions as to whether this (panic button) works or not," noting that the feature would not prevent children from being lured into meeting a pedophile or other abuser who had already gained their trust online.
She noted that children are at risk from predators both online and offline.
"Nobody suggested a 'panic button' for the mall," she said.