ROME – Tech giants made a strong showing at the Oct. 3-6 summit on ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ at Rome’s Gregorian University, advocating for a global collaboration in the fight against sex abuse and bringing to the fore the latest technologies and developments in monitoring and preventing offenders.
Speakers at the international event stated, in different terms, that children growing up during the digital revolution have served as ‘guinea pigs’ for the effects that occur when smartphones and tablets allow them to have the world at their fingertips, with all the possibilities – and risks – that that entails.
“Think about that for a second. Kids, this generation that’s growing up connected to these devices, literally sleeping with that phone under their pillow,” said Baroness Joanna Shields, a leading voice in child protection with a background in tech company leadership and the founder of the global online child protection alliance WePROTECT.
Social media companies have become a primary point of encounter and communication for young people around the globe, but on the other side of the luminescent screens there are those who wish to exploit the incredible reach of these new media to take advantage of the most vulnerable in our society. Data presented at the congress shows that between 32 and 68 percent of children have seen sexual images online, and between 7 and 27 percent have received sexual images from people they encountered on the web.
“At Facebook we take these issues very seriously,” said Antigone Davis, the social media giant’s head of Global Safety Policy, after thanking the organizers of the meeting that include the Gregorian University, which is hosting the congress, along with WePROTECT and the Italian anti-abuse hotline Telefono Azzuro.
Davis stressed that Facebook has “zero tolerance” for posts and pages that promote the sexual exploitation of children and that the company immediately brings the issue before the authorities in cases where they have reason to believe that a child is in grave and immediate danger.
The global media company has been using the experience and tools used to fight terrorists on their platforms, to find and eliminate threats for children on the Internet. Facebook, in collaboration with Google and Microsoft, developed programs that have made it quicker and easier to zero in on sites that undermine the dignity of children.
“We take those sites down,” Davis said before a number of experts, religious, activists and academics. “That’s the power of the social network, to get people together to combat sexual exploitation of children.”
The same approach was echoed by Jacqueline Beauchere, the chief online safety officer at Microsoft, who said that the company “has a long standing commitment to protect children and all young people online,” which includes removing illegal content on their platforms.
In 2003, Microsoft responded to an appeal by a law enforcement officer to help find and identify sexual offenders on the web, to which they responded with a one million dollar investment aimed at creating a program allowing organizations and police to share information across borders regarding online threats to minors.
Beauchere started her speech before the assembly by recounting the tales of the many young people who, succumbing to peer pressure or lacking guidance, send self-generated sexual content to friends or partners on the Internet, that subsequently are copied and downloaded by people “who pay money to access them over and over again.”
“No one entity or organization alone can safeguard our children and young people online,” Beauchere continued, adding that all parts of society must act together if there is any hope to fight what can be viewed as a massive and all-encompassing issue.
“As global citizens, we at Microsoft believe that eliminating the online creation of this abhorrent material is a universal call to action,” she said.
Showing its commitment to collaborate with all entities dedicated to fighting the online sexual exploitation of minors, Microsoft has licensed for free the program ‘photo DNA,’ a technology that allows one to find copies of an image over millions of sites, even if that image has been digitally altered. This has played a crucial role in identifying and taking down the countless copies of photos showing pedo-pornographic content on the web.
Despite the work being done to combat the massive number of threats that young people may find online, speakers at the congress pointed to the fact that given the enormous revenue collected by social media companies, more could be done on an economic level to address the issue.
“In 2015 Facebook profits amounted to 1.56 billion dollars. In the spirit of apportioning responsibility rather than blame, the question to all members of the tech industry is this: Are you investing as much as you could and should on the disadvantages of the products that earn you billions?” asked Mary Healy, the executive director of the Swiss based Human Dignity Foudation.
“Proportionate investment from the tech companies is not just needed, but it’s a moral imperative,” Healy said.
Baroness Sheila Hollins, a member of the newly created Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, also said that social media companies could do more to combat the issue on a practical level.
“People could use parent power on social media to demand accountability for all companies who are corrupting their children, companies that are encouraging and enabling over sharing,” Hollins said.
“We could demand that companies start using their skills to prevent children from using the Internet for extended periods and at night. I am told that the technology is there. We could draw attention to particular populations at risk and the windows in which abuses most typically occur, and ask companies to find ways to protect them. ”
Summing up the conference, Ernie Allen, the former director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S, said that the need for innovation was a constant theme brought up by participants, as well as the need for tech companies to tailor their services when the user is a child.
“We have so precious few resources. We are given budgets like everyone else,” Beauchere told reporters after the congress. “So we have to decide where we are going to put our efforts and what is going to deliver the most bang for the buck.”
She continued to say that some people view technology as a “silver bullet” that created these related problems and therefore must fix them.
“Number one, technology did not create these problems and number two, technology alone can’t solve them,” Beauchere said, adding that “people need to own their own presence online” by placing a series of safeguards and protections when they browse.
The challenge to fight the staggering number of youth who fall pray to sexual exploitation on the internet concerns the entire world, Beauchere said, and she called for more data and collaboration among all government and non-governmental entities.
On Oct. 6, participants at the congress will be received by Pope Francis at the Vatican and have an opportunity to present a declaration, which contains a series of guidelines and calls to action resulting from the congress. Beauchere told reporters that the Church “can be a great voice and a great platform” to promote this message as well as “Pope Francis with his magnanimous nature.”
She also stated that the workshops have not managed to get to the heart of the matter and fully understand what motivates the online behavior of young people and perpetrators and that more must be discussed and analyzed before answers may be achieved.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Beauchere said, quoting the old saying, at the end of her presentation at the Congress. “Online, ladies and gentlemen, the whole world is raising our children.”