More progress in the fight against online child sex abuse

Last week representatives from the Governments of the “Five Eyes” nations, (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA) gathered in Washington DC. They endorsed a set of eleven voluntary principles to combat a range of online threats to children. Alongside the principles an explanatory note was also issued.

The principles did not magically appear out of thin air. They were the product of months of negotiations and discussions between “Five Eyes” and the six companies named in a contemporaneous UK Home Office press release: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Snap and Roblox.  There was blood, sweat, tears and lawyers behind every dot and comma.

Each of the companies I just mentioned is a member of the Technology Coalition, along with a further ten,  some of  them household names. The Coalition issued a statement in which they said they “stand behind” the eleven principles, adding “(we will work) with our members to both spread awareness(of the principles) and redouble…efforts to bring industry together to promote transparency, share expertise and accelerate new technologies to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Then in the explanatory note this appears:

“The WePROTECT Global Alliance, which currently comprises 97 governments, 25 technology companies and 30 civil society organisations, will promote and support the adoption of the principles at a global level to drive collective industry action.”

The membership list for WePROTECT is currently being updated so I cannot provide you with a working link to it right now, but I do know the 25 technology companies referred to encompass most of the Technology Coalition’s membership and more besides, including several big names that had chosen not to be members of the Coalition.

The largest-ever collection – I think

The moving spirits behind the eleven principles are to be congratulated. I am pretty sure the document they have published and the support it seems to be attracting represents the largest ever assembly of companies, Governments and civil society organizations rallying behind a set of concrete, directed proposals addressing the position of children in the online environment.

The angels are in the details

Of course, the eleven principles document contains the usual high level, platitudinous, compulsory elements  that are mirrored in a thousand other declarations, communiqués, resolutions and solemn protocols stretching back almost thirty years, but what matters most here is the detailed stuff.

From now on

From now on no one can argue  the ideas and proposals listed in that document are unreasonable or not do-able, the ravings of wild-eyed idealists with no knowledge of how tech or online business works.

Unquestionably and unalterably the eleven principles  document therefore establishes a hugely important, new global benchmark. One insider emphasised to me that the document is “aspirational” and I understand that. But I doubt any of the six companies will say they put their name to aspirations that were unattainable or undesirable.

But voluntary?

Cynics may say “Enough already with voluntary statements. How many last chances can there be in the last chance saloon? As long as companies have wiggle room they will wiggle.”  I cannot argue with that, but with initiatives such as these the circumference of the wiggling space shrinks.

I would have liked the language to have had a more urgent, pressing edge to it but it would be foolish and counter-productive not to recognise the eleven principles as progress. This is a global document not a UK one, and it is as a global document that it represents a new benchmark. A UK-only document would be very different.

Even so, let me pick out just a few really good points that I think are welcome signs of an evolution in thinking.

Terms of service

Five times the principles document refers to taking “appropriate action under their terms of service”. This is very important. For too long companies have said “these are our rules, this is the basis on which you agree to engage with us” and in so doing have created a wholly misleading impression. Why? Because they have made limited or no efforts to enforce their rules relying, instead, on outdated, prehistoric external immunities. It’s almost as if their rules are merely marketing material. This has to end, and that includes being wilfully blind to the presence of persons below the minimum specified age.

New materials

I also liked the appearance, in Principle 2, of the reference to developing tools to “identify and combat the dissemination of new child sex abuse material”. The main focus up to now has been on using tools to identify already known images but really we ought to be able to do better than that and in fact some companies tell us they are doing better than that. We need to know more and the technology needs to be made widely available.

Not illegal but very harmful

What is wholly new in a document of this type is Principle 8. It refers to companies seeking “to take appropriate action, including providing reporting options, on material that may not be illegal on its face, but with appropriate context and confirmation may be connected to child sexual exploitation and abuse”.

Too many companies have been relying on the narrowest interpretation of the law concerning illegal child abuse content. As a result, they are refusing to take down images which on any reasonable understanding, any decent human understanding,  are extremely prejudicial to a child’s well-being. That must change and Principle 8 is the harbinger. I imagine a lot of people in Canada and Germany will have felt absolutely delighted when they saw Principle 8. Their niche in the history books is guaranteed.

My one major criticism

If I have one major criticism it is nothing to do with what the document says. It is to do with what it does not say. There is nothing about how to carry forward the momentum. “Five Eyes”, as such, has no machinery with the ability to follow through or monitor progress and anyway it is too narrow a base. The Technology Coalition has led a somnambulant existence since 2006 and seems unlikely to be able to develop the necessary larger reach.  The WePROTECT Global Alliance is extremely  valuable and  important but its structure imposes constraints which may be insurmountable in this particular context.

Then I look at something like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), established in 2017 and ask why there has been no equivalent body devoted to the protection of children and the defence of their rights in the online space? Just read what it says about GIFCT’s objectives and structure.  Urgency and millions upon millions of dollars have been put behind this. Quite right too. Children deserve something approaching or at least in the same vicinity as this  level of seriousness.

I  look also at the Global Network Initiative established by the industry in 2008 with a stated aim of defending freedom of expression and privacy rights. It was, originally at least, wholly funded by the industry to act as a buffer against what they considered to be overly intrusive Governments.  This is another multi-million dollar operation which has no equivalent in the world of children’s online rights.

The need for a global observatory

There ought to be a civil society-based global observatory specifically dedicated to advancing the interests of children in the digital environment. Greenpeace is the model I have in mind. Respected because it is guided by the science in furtherance of a cause and with a global, mutually supportive,  connected activist network monitoring, lobbying and engaging with policy makers and decision takers in practically every jurisdiction and in major international arenas.


Just look what is happening on Capitol Hill right now.  On the very day the eleven principles were published a bipartisan measure was introduced in Congress  which, essentially, said if you  are an internet company and you don’t  act  to protect children, pretty much in the way the eleven principles suggest,  you will go out of business.  And that message is remarkably similar to that adopted by the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Their report came out yesterday.

We all want the benefits the internet can deliver but people are saying they don’t believe the downsides are the inevitable price everyone must pay in perpetuity in order to have them. When enough people start saying it their elected representatives have to pay attention.  We are at the “enough point”. I think it’s called democracy.

PS Encryption

And what about encryption? I hear you ask. Thank you, that’s an excellent question. The word does not appear anywhere in the 11 principles document or the explanatory note. Not once. What conclusions do I draw from that? None yet, but several are bubbling away in the old grey matter. However, I note IICSA picked up on it. The cat is out of the bag.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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