Mike Collier in Riga -
Most young internet start-ups would be glad to be in the spotlight of the international media, but in the case of Latvian website Ask.fm, it has been a mixed blessing.
The social networking site, set up in 2010 with backing from the Rubylight technology investment fund, which also set up Russia's Odnoklassniki.ru, has seen its number of registered users worldwide pass the 70m mark - 35-times larger than the entire population of the country in which it is based. But it has also been linked in the pages of UK and other media to the suicides of half a dozen teenagers who used the site.
Critics - which is to say the Daily Mail and similar bastions of hysterical self-righteousness - claim the environment that Ask.fm creates, in which both registered and anonymous users can post answers to questions asked by others, leads to abuse and so-called "cyber-bullying". They point, with as much lurid detail as possible, to cases such as British teenager Hannah Smith, 14, who took her own life in August after receiving abusive messages on the website. Most of those messages turned out to have been sent from her own computer, according to IP address records traced by Ask.fm.
Her sad death led to a feeding frenzy among a UK press unhumbled by the Leveson enquiry into its own sleazy practices. Keen to blame an Eastern European website for her death rather than consider family, school or other social problems she may have faced as a teenager growing up in modern Britain, hacks were despatched post-haste from Fleet Street to Riga, but returned home largely empty handed apart from a series of unattributed quotes from a "former employee" of Ask.fm with a suspiciously good grasp of tabloid English.
The lack of hard evidence against founders Ilja and Mark Terebin left The Mail On Sunday taking the bizarre option of interviewing their parents in order to prove... well, it's difficult to say what.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron even waded into the debate, saying on state-sponsored BBC television (the BBC always makes a point of saying that about broadcasters in Russia and elsewhere which do not even impose a compulsory licence fee) that websites such as Ask.fm, "have got to step up to the plate and clean up their act and show some responsibility."
Rather than argue with the onslaught from the UK, the founders of ask-fm have preferred to keep a low profile. Requests for interviews have been politely declined, with all information from Ask.fm now passing through the hands of its London-based legal representatives Mishcon de Reya. On August 19, that information took the form of a statement by the Terebin brothers promising to improve the website's security features. "In the light of recent events highlighting the impact online bullying and harassment can have on young people, we engaged professional advisors to conduct a full and independent audit of our site and its safety features... We can today announce our commitment to making changes to Ask.fm's existing policies in three core areas: reporting and moderation, registration and corporate visibility," said the statement.
"We will hire more staff to act as moderators, including a Safety Officer to take overall responsibility for moderation," it added, promising to make these and other changes by January 2014.
Ask.fm also promised to make certain sections of the site unavailable to anonymous users to encourage registration, and said it would set up a separate website to provide information to parents.
The reversal in Ask.fm's fortunes has been swift. As recently as June, one of Ask.fm's other directors, Klavs Sinka, appeared on the local TV3 news channel to reflect on the company's amazing rise to global prominence in under three years. "It's a typical success story, just five boys sitting in a flat eating dumplings and thinking and thinking until we came up with an idea we were happy with," Sinka said.
Looking younger than his 25 years, Sinka was already aware that in the fast-paced world of IT, runaway success can quickly change. "Things are very changeable, and there's never a final victory when we open the champagne and live the easy life," he said.
Those turned out to be prophetic words, as less than two months later he was telling the UK's ITN news: "Everything we say is being twisted by the media."
One of the few people who have actually spoken to the Ask.fm owners recently is Kristine Zilde, the journalist who carried out both the TV3 and ITN interviews. "I would say they are confused," Zilde tells bne. "They do all they can to improve the site, but the pressure and the negative image they are getting doesn't seem fair to them."
And despite the huge media coverage in the UK, there has been much less in Latvia, not least because Latvians themselves are not keen users of the site. Fewer than 1% of Ask.fm's users are Latvian, compared with 8.7% from Italy, 7.6% from Brazil, 7.3% from the US, 4% from France and 2.9% from the UK, according to data from web statistics monitor Alexa.
Latvia's most popular social networking site by far is draugiem.lv, ("for friends"), making Latvia one of very few countries where a local website outstrips the popularity of global giants such as Facebook and Twitter. "Ask.fm was started in Latvia, it is international and works in many languages. Draugiem.lv is a Latvian social network in Latvian," says Latvian IT journalist and industry expert Juris Kaza.
What effect the furore will have on Ask.fm's long-term future is unclear. "It already has impacted: usage has dropped, some advertisers have pulled out. Whether this is fatal, given the measures they have announced, remains to be seen," Kaza says.
While the number of registered users continues to climb, actual use of the website has dropped in recent weeks. According to Alexa data, Ask.fm was the 150th most popular website in the world over the last three months, though the number of page views it attracts has plummeted by 40% in the last month.
But there is a growing feeling in Latvia that being based in a small country about which most people know little makes Ask.fm a convenient scapegoat. Social commentator Karlis Langins points out that the British media's picture of the site as a breeding ground for teenage suicides is riven with hypocrisy. "I think it is just another case of parents blaming everything for their child's death and politicians reacting in a populistic manner. It is an easy way out because they have an easy target to point their finger at," Langins says.
"Ask.fm has 70m registered users, a little more than entire population of Britain, which is ranked number 37 in the world for suicides with 11.8 people committing suicide for every 100,000 citizens. If Ask.fm was a country where every registered user was a citizen, it would be in last place in the world with 0.01 suicides for every 100,000 citizens. Ask.fm would have to have 7,455 suicides per year just to match Britain. I would love to hear what David Cameron would have to say on this matter," says Langins.
The wider Latvian IT sector has also backed Ask.fm, saying that it proves Latvian companies can provide genuinely global companies. "The most important thing in this specific case is the fact that according to public information, Ask.fm is showing good will and investigates the problematic situation, which indicates that they are neither fraudsters, nor law breakers," said a joint statement to bne from the board of the Latvian IT Cluster, an umbrella organisation for young tech companies.
"We consider it as an opportunity to promote Latvia without any danger of building up a negative opinion of the country. There are many new and innovative companies emerging in Latvia, already known worldwide, and they should be discussed more," it added.
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