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Facebook and missing children

Nowadays if we find ourselves without a mobile phone or with an interrupted internet connection, we feel as if we’re missing a limb. This is more the case with younger generations, although I’m surprised by the number of elderly who wouldn’t be without their mobile. We’re used to being continuously connected to the rest of the world, and even though many is the time we do not need it, we depend on it.

This also applies to social media. We wake up, and while the coffee is brewing, we check our timeline and our friends’ messages and maybe play a game, as if our life depended on them. We do it through the day as well. Most of us don’t get to know what’s happening from newspapers, television or radio, or from websites for that matter – but from Facebook.

Love it or hate it, this is our everyday reality. Shouldn’t we therefore take advantage of this technological dependence for our own good?

This question led to the Malta Police Force teaming up with Facebook. Should a child be reported as missing and possibly facing imminent risk, all Facebook users in Malta, including tourists, will receive automatic alerts (without the need to like any page) on their timelines. The AMBER Alert is an urgent message issued by the police when a child disappears or is abducted and there’s reason to fear that the child’s life or health is in danger. The message is divulged by various organisations.

AMBER Alert Malta, launched on January 10, resulted from cooperation between the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security, the Malta Police Force and the non-profit organisation AMBER Alert Europe. Facebook is the latest organisation to join AMBER Alert Malta, and it was our pleasure to host one of the company’s highest ranking officials, Emily Vacher. Her presence in Malta, along with Facebook’s decision to collaborate with the Malta Police Force, are a display of trust in the force’s abilities.

It goes without saying that the quicker the search starts and the greater the number of people reached by the alert, the greater the probability that the missing child will be found. Since Facebook is the largest social network in Malta, the company’s decision to join forces means that, should a child disappear and be in danger, more people can be involved in the search, particularly in those crucial first hours.

The quicker the search starts and the greater the number of people reached by the alert,the greater the probability that the missing child will be found

AMBER Alert’s success depends on spreading the alert message on different platforms. Thus I call on more organisations to contact the police force’s Community & Media Relations Unit or send an email to [email protected].

In the coming weeks, the police and their partners in this project will issue test alerts in order for the public to experience the system. I also call upon more individuals and organisations to register on the AMBER Alert Malta website, amberalert.com.mt, in order to receive updates and alerts, thereby helping in the search for missing children in danger.

■ Despite being a positive tool, the internet is also a weapon in the hands of those whose aim is to harm others. Terrorists, for example, are continuously relying on the internet to pass information, to coordinate attacks, for propaganda and to recruit.

As part of our fight against terrorism, in December 2015, we launched the EU Internet Forum.  In this project, the European Commission, EU member states’ ministries for home affairs and internet companies are working together to protect our citizens from the dangers that come with this complex situation. Within this forum, we discuss what terrorists are doing, understand better how each one of us can contribute in this fight, and identify areas in which we can cooperate further.

Since the forum kicked off, concrete action has been taken to prevent internet abuse from international terrorist organisations. The results are clear to see: 90 per cent of the content that Europol (the EU law enforcement agency) referred to internet companies has been removed. Nonetheless, the challenge is still there, and we cannot take our eyes off our enemy. We must address the issue without compromising the fundamental right for freedom of expression.

Within this context, in recent days, I represented the Maltese presidency of the Council of the EU in high-level meetings with three major internet companies based in the United States: Google, Facebook and Twitter.

With European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and other European representatives, during our meetings in California, we stressed the need to reduce access to internet content coming from terrorists while ensuring that the whole of civil society has the ability to increase the volume of messages that can counter and extinguish terrorist propaganda.

In a globalised world that’s continuously changing, the fight against terrorism presents ever-changing and evolving challenges. In this context, the cooperation between governments and the private sector can seriously disrupt terrorists’ internet activities.

We have to progress and build upon what we have achieved with Google, Facebook and Twitter, while cooperating with companies of different magnitudes.

It must be us who win the battle.

Carmelo Abela is Minister for Home Affairs and National Security.

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