Red Hood Project fights to protect kids from predators on social media

Anonymity is a powerful protector in the online world, but it can also be a powerful weapon against the innocent.

Whose freedom do we value most?

In the early days of civic advocate and former Crown prosecutor Sandy Garossino's career, she prosecuted a marathon trial involving a 15-year-old girl who had been lured into sex work by gangs.

After two years of groundwork and two different trials, the teenage girl took the stand.

Just as the girl was detailing the intimate acts she performed for money, a group of high-school students trooped into the courtroom. This was not uncommon, but Garossino felt that the sensitive nature of the testimony -- as well as the young age of the girl on the stand -- meant that high-school kids shouldn't be allowed in the audience.  

But she was too young and too green, she said, to stand up to the judge and request a break until the high-school group was gone. She felt sure that the judge would shoot down her request.

So the testimony continued.

"What I didn't know, and what this teenager told me when she got off the stand was,  'Those kids were from my school.' [...] And that has haunted me for years.'"

The humiliating experience of a 15-year-old girl having to reveal her sex acts to fellow schoolmates now repeats itself every day -- and in much more graphic terms -- thanks to social media. Photos and videos of girls getting gang-raped, as well as sexual photos of underage girls and boys, are distributed via Facebook, twitter and Instagram to the victims' personal own networks, turning them into social pariahs. Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, Audrie Potts...these girls made the headlines, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg of minors whose suffering is made a hundred times worse in an uncontrolled internet environment. 

An institutionalized failure to protect children's privacy 

When Garossino learned about Amanda Todd's tragic suicide, her first thought was about how creepy it was that Facebook made it possible for a child predator to reach into Todd's young life. 

"How did an adult sexual predator reach in and contact a 13-year-old girl, know her home address, her cellphone number, all her friends, her schoolmates?"

Garossino found herself staring at a glaring security flaw, one she sees as akin to a school posting the records of all its students on the Internet.

Compared with how society attempts to safeguard healthcare and financial confidentiality, Garossino found it "shocking" how easily a teen girl's social confidentiality was compromised.

The failure to protect children's privacy has been institutionalized by Facebook and other sites, and "the damage to a child can be done in a heartbeat", Garossino said.

A compromising photo, once shared, can be endlessly copied and endlessly propagated, as still is the case with the late Amanda Todd's images.

Years later, Garossino still recalls the teenager's stinging shame as her classmates walked into the courtroom.

Today, Garossino works tirelessly for the Red Hood Project, an internet advocacy group. She co-founded it with the Centre for Child Honouring, Industrial Brand Creative managing director Mark Busse and children's entertainer Raffi Cavoukian, who was incensed when he heard about Amanda Todd's death, and later released a book called Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Before it Reforms Us.

The Red Hood Project aims to convince social media sites and telecommunication companies to implement policies to protect children from online predators.  

"It's a small way of making it up to that kid," Garossino says.

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