Facebook "has created something of a monster which it cannot control," a judge said yesterday as he ruled that a troubled 13-year-old girl could not be prevented from accessing the site.
In a case which highlights the difficulties some parents face in stopping children accessing inappropriate content online, a father, who cannot be named for legal reasons, wanted judges in Northern Ireland to force Facebook to take "any steps necessary" to stop his daughter accessing the website.
His legal bid came after she used Facebook to post a series of sexually suggestive pictures and had "sexualised contact" with older men.
Facebook admitted that it was powerless to stop the girl using an account because she could create new ones under different pseudonyms and access the site from different devices.
The case illustrates some of the concerns parents have over lax controls and monitoring systems Facebook employs for the more than one billion users who have signed up to the site.
Although Facebook insists only those aged 13 or above can create a profile on their site, the social network does not use any age or identity verification systems. Instead it relies on users to report content that is inappropriate or breaches its terms and conditions.
Sitting in the High Court in Belfast, Mr Justice McCloskey said Facebook's defence largely rested on the idea that "it has created something of a monster which it alleges it cannot control".
Nonetheless he threw out the father's bid for an interim injunction forcing Facebook to halt the girl accessing the site because it was far too broad in its scope, was unworkable and could not be monitored.
The girl has a troubled background and a history of inappropriate, over-sexualised behaviour. She is described as a "vulnerable young lady who is beyond parental control" and who has spent much of the last two years in a secure unit. She has repeatedly absconded and been found with older males consuming drugs and alcohol.
Over a nine-month period in 2011 the girl - who was then aged 12 - created a total of four Facebook profiles in which she often posted explicit photos and had inappropriate contact with older men. Each time the girl's father complained using Facebook's reporting procedures, and the profiles were taken down within 24 hours. In one profile, the girl had joined a group containing 63,000 members which encouraged users to send in sexually suggestive photographs.
While in care, the local authorities and her parents took steps to stop her accessing the internet and the judge found that there was no evidence any offending publication has exposed her to risk since the summer of 2012. However the girl has recently left secure accommodation to live with her mother. According to a statement provided by her father, she has claimed to have set up a new Facebook account under a false name which her parents cannot find.
In a defence submitted to the court, Facebook said there was little way it could monitor whether the girl went on to set up new profiles. "It would be infeasible for Facebook to review over 1 billion profiles and millions of uploaded posts to determine if a particular individual has posted content online," it stated. "All Facebook can do is act expeditiously every time it receives a report about unlawful or abusive content."
The site also insisted that much of the responsibility for how teenagers or children access the site should rest with the parents.
Mr Justice McCloskey predicted that Facebook's argument that it was effectively powerless to stop certain children accessing the site might not be successful "in an appropriate case" in the future and would need to be investigated in further legal action.