Everyone agrees that stopping the rise of online child abuse and exploitation is an urgent priority. The big question is: are there more innovative ways to go about it? Coming at this problem after twenty-five years of building global tech companies, and now as an adviser to the UK Government and the Prime Minister, I believe that there is a better way. My view is shared by delegations from more than 50 countries, 26 leading technology companies and 10 non-governmental organisations which took part this week in the UK Government’s two day #WeProtect Children Online summit at Lancaster House.
Too often in the past, the dialogue between government and leading tech companies has leapt from crisis to crisis. In every interaction, you have on one side, government officials with a toolkit of new rules and regulations to try to make the Internet safer. On the other side, you have members of the tech industry with an army of government affairs and risk advisers trying to limit government interference. That in the end is never going to achieve the results we need and surely it’s better to empower those who create these great platforms and products to come up with the ideas and solutions we need? This is about doing the right thing and stopping illegal activity. And I am happy to say that many good companies are rising to the challenge.
The simple truth is that something really appalling is happening and the statistics speak for themselves. Here in the UK, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre now receives on average 1600 reports a month relating to child sexual exploitation. Recently, the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children revealed that they reviewed 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child pornography. What’s more, it saddens me beyond belief that 19% of the offenders had images of children younger than three years old on their devices, 39% of them had images of children under six years old, and 83% of them had images of children aged under 12.
The key question is how to harness the power of technology to fight these horrific crimes. In the summer of 2013, UK Prime Minister David Cameron brought together a coalition of Internet service providers and Internet platform companies, and set them this challenge: to enlist their brightest minds and ask them to work out how we can stop online abuse and exploitation. And then last November, the Prime Minister and the President of the United States agreed to set up a joint UK-US task force to counter these crimes.
The result of this is that we’ve made genuine progress this year. In May 2014, the technology industry came together in a ground-breaking industry developer forum. Technical experts representing 48 of the world’s leading tech companies collaborated with academia and subject matter experts to develop new approaches for protecting children.
This week WeProtect unveiled some of the solutions this forum developed. The first is a new tool developed by IBM and Getty Images and other companies for law enforcement officers, which uses facial recognition and web crawling technology to speed up analysis of child sex abuse images to identify victims and get them help and support.
Secondly, Dell and Visa Europe worked have developed a system that helps young people assess risk and make more informed decisions about the people they talk to online. The new system “scores” online interactions and provides an on the spot risk rating.
Microsoft presented a system they are developing for young people to report and block self-generated indecent images. This will provide young people with a mechanism to halt this increasingly common form of exploitation, and take control of their own safety online.
Facebook talked about the work they are doing to identify victims and apprehend offenders, and how sharing knowledge and expertise can help everyone to stay one step ahead of the crime. And Google announced a new system to identify and tag child sexual abuse videos, share the results and ensure other platforms, starting with Yahoo, would not allow it to be viewed online. Google, Mozilla and Microsoft also agreed to collaborate on ways to block the viewing of child abuse content via their browsers.
In every case, these initiatives won’t just protect children in one country; they will help protect children all over the world. The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Convention requires that states act in the best interest of every child. Yet technology recognises no state borders or boundaries. Today, the most popular Internet platforms reach more people every day than there are in any nation; Facebook has 1.4B monthly active users and China has 1.4B citizens. This new reality requires new ways of working and a new paradigm of collaboration between the industry, NGOs and governments around the world.
Every child born today has the potential to dream, invent and amaze the world, but they must be able to do so creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. By working across national borders and using the skills of our best and brightest we can guarantee children the future that they deserve and secure their safety in the digital world.
Baroness Shields is a leading technology industry executive and entrepreneur, currently serving as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s Adviser on the Digital Economy, our Chair and a non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange Group.