Google, Facebook and Microsoft back global plan to ‘eradicate’ online child sexual abuse

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  • The Technology Coalition is a group backed by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Its aim is to combat online sexual abuse.
  • The coalition says it will invest millions of dollars into research and publish annual reports on its progress in tackling abusive content.
  • Tech firms have clashed with top law enforcement officials over encryption amid worries it could hinder efforts to track down perpetrators.

A coalition of tech giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have backed a five-fold plan to “eradicate” child sexual abuse on the internet.

The group, known as the Technology Coalition, was founded in 2006 with the aim of preventing child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) on the web. It partners with organizations like Unicef and children’s charities, and provides funding and advice to tech platforms on implementing child safety tools.

“The world has changed since we first came together in 2006,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “Technology is more advanced, and there has been an explosion of new internet services, including mobile and online video streaming.”

“The number of people online — more than 4.5 billion in 2020 — has added to the challenge of keeping the internet a safe place. As a result, the technological tools for detecting and reporting CSEA content have become more sophisticated, but so too have the forms of abuse we seek to prevent and eradicate.

Technology Coalition’s plan to tackle online CSEA has five main goals in mind. The consortium says it will:

• Invest in innovative tech to tackle child sexual abuse material on the web.

• Hold an annual forum with governments, law enforcement and other stakeholders, as well as periodic events.

• Fund independent research into trends around online child exploitation and measures to prevent it.

• Create new systems and develop existing ones for the sharing of information and threats across the industry.

• Share insights on the reporting of child sexual abuse and form a process for firms to benchmark their progress.

The alliance says it will invest millions of dollars into a research and innovation fund to build new technology and publish annual reports on its progress in tackling abusive content.

It’s working with international bodies WePROTECT Global Alliance — an organization founded by U.K. tech entrepreneur Joanna Shields — and the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. The news arrives after the Technology Coalition backed 11 principles put forth by the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance — comprised of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — earlier this year to prevent the spread of online child sex abuse

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the plan, dubbed Project Protect, “brings together the brightest minds from across the tech industry to tackle a grave issue that no one company can solve on its own.”

In the U.K., the government is introducing new legislation to tackle harmful content including child exploitation and terrorism. But tech companies are also under global pressure to ensure they have robust systems in place to identify and remove toxic content.

There are fears the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown measures have heightened the risk of child sexual abuse spreading online. On May 20, U.K. charity Internet Watch Foundation said there had been 8.8 million attempts to access images and video of children suffering sexual abuse during the country’s lockdown.

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel welcomed the latest move from Technology Coalition. She labeled online child sexual abuse “sickening” and said “we must all work collaboratively to eradicate this crime.”

“Myself and the Five Country partners have been clear that technology companies need to work quickly and go further to address the critical issues that could leave children vulnerable to online predators,” Patel added.

Encryption battle

It’s worth noting that large platforms like Facebook and YouTube already have mechanisms in place to tag and trace images and videos that violate their content guidelines and prevent them from being reposted. But these aren’t foolproof.

Roblox, a popular online game platform, has been targeted by predatorsseeking to groom children. For its part, Roblox says it uses a combination of machine learning and human moderators to review and block child sexual abuse material before it’s uploaded.

Tech firms have also clashed with top law enforcement officials over the use of encryption in online messaging services, including Facebook’s plan to integrate and encrypt messaging across WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

Such encryption means that only people sending and receiving messages are able to view them. Officials such as U.S. Attorney William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray have argued that more encryption would hinder efforts to track down perpetrators of online child sexual abuse.

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