Turning the tide in landlocked Brussels

In the past I have expressed doubts and reservations about multi-stakeholder forums.  Governments, industry, and inter-Governmental institutions each have their own reasons for establishing or wanting to be seen to be part of them. Some of these reasons are wholly honourable. Some less so. That’s a separate discussion for another time and it’s not one I want to start today because I have just come back from a multi-stakeholder event which, even allowing for the Covid-enforced hiatus, was quite unlike any I have attended for a long time. I refer, of course, to “Turning the Tide” a conference organized by the We Protect Global Alliance (WPGA),  and held in Brussels on 1-2 June. I was part of the ECPAT International contingent although, as ever, this blog expresses my personal views.

An enormous gathering

For something of this kind, it was a huge event. At one point over 430 people were in the Royal Palace’s Europa Room and about the same logged-in remotely. It’s not hard to work out why the numbers were so large.

A lot of it was to do with the simple fact we were meeting in the EU’s capital where, right now, a new regulatory framework is being developed which has the potential to reshape global practice in relation to the fight against child sexual abuse both online and offline. Note the joining of the two together. Vital. Several of the key people responsible for putting together and advancing the framework were there, happy to talk and explain.

High-level participation from both national Governments and industry was evident throughout, as was the presence of big philanthropic funders. There was also an abundance of rowdy agitators from civil society – I count myself among them – impatient at the rate of progress hitherto.

Did I really say, “rowdy agitators”?  What I meant was we are the grit in the oyster, expressing the frustration of all those who cannot understand why it is taking so long to make the internet a lot better and safer for children and those who understand only too well but don’t like it one little bit.

For me there were three stand out moments and one stand out reason for being in Brussels last week.

Survivors speaking out

In Brussels and elsewhere Government people from several jurisdictions have remarked more than once how the emergence of the voices of adult survivors of online child sexual abuse is changing the dynamic and having a major political impact. You just cannot look away or file something in “pending” when you’ve been face to face with the painfully real consequences of past neglect, indifference or lethargy.

Providing survivors with a platform to speak was pioneered several years ago by the visionaries at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection with the Phoenix 11. In Brussels we heard from the recently-established US-based “Brave Movement”, an organization led by survivors with ambitions to reach out and organize on a global scale.

If we were to judge the survivors’ case solely on the basis of the ability of Brave’s leaders to marshal and present it with measured, impactful passion, not a rowdy agitator in sight, no one would be left in any doubt at all that survivors’ voices will play a much larger part in shaping what lies ahead. Everywhere. Driven by righteous anger coupled with calm, steely determination, these women and men do not need to be patronised by our pity. They refuse to be stigmatised, boxed in or defined by the events that led them to Brave. Bravo Brave. Bravo Phoenix.

The Model National Response

I had a marginal involvement in drafting the first iteration of the Model National Response (MNR). With its solid backing from global law enforcement and other agencies it was a  breakthrough document. If we were sitting down today to write it, we might emphasise some points more than others, for example there was no real survivors’ movement back then (2015) so there is no reference to the role of survivors as agents of change. The importance of establishing transparent, systemic standards and enshrining them in law might be given greater prominence.

Nevertheless, the enduring value of the MNR is beyond question. There was an extremely interesting discussion of “Framing the Future” a report which presented an analysis of how the MNR was supporting the implementation  of national strategies to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation. It was made clear the MNR as it stands should not be seen as an “accountability or scrutiny” mechanism.  National governments guard their sovereignty jealously or at any rate do not give it away or undermine it casually or by accident. That’s not so different from Big Tech’s attitude although there is no real basis for making direct comparisons between the two.

Taken together with the highly detailed Council of Europe’s “Handbook for policy makers on the rights of the child in the digital environment” (interest also declared) and the UNCRC’s General Comment 25, the MNR allows us to assert with complete confidence that there is no lack of research-based knowledge about what needs to be done. We know  how to improve the internet for children and young people so as to reduce the levels of sexual abuse and exploitation and a much wider range of online hazards. Just as importantly we know how to promote the internet as a vehicle which can provide children with myriad opportunities to claim and express their rights, as well as find help or resources that meet their needs.

Voluntary transparency, trust and… hmm

The Tech Coalition is a collection of companies in Big Tech and little tech, but mainly Big Tech, dedicated, as their website says, to “working together to end online child sexual exploitation and abuse.” Coalition leaders were in Brussels in force.

Thus, in membership of the Tech Coalition are the companies that created the systems which led, yes, to a great many benefits to children and society as a whole, but at the same time they have developed and allowed systems to flourish which have done untold but avoidable harm to too many people, of whom children are but one group.

On the second day of the conference (note, not the first day) the Coalition released a document entitled “Trust: Voluntary Framework for Industry Transparency”. Obviously, because of the timing of the release, few if any in the audience had a chance to read or discuss the 14 pager with colleagues before the Coalition leadership group took to the stage to tell us about it.

The Coalition’s wider work and the Framework consist of two main elements.

  1. Enabling tech companies to share knowledge and expertise among themselves about  how to combat online child sex abuse.
  2. Using the transparency framework to build trust among and with key constituencies.

So I count this as a stand-out Brussels moment although not quite in the same way as the other two. It illustrates just how arrogant or tone deaf industry can be. In the face of everything that has happened they feel they can still do stuff like this?

If Big Tech had produced such a paper 15 or even 10 years ago and all or even most of them had acted on it with serious purpose, there is a good chance we would now be in an altogether different and better place.

The “Voluntary Framework” is way too little and it’s way too late to ward off the inevitable in a good many jurisdictions around the world, the EU and the UK being just two of them.

Look at the Online Safety Bill currently before the UK Parliament. It contains proposals for criminal sanctions to be wielded against senior executives of companies that refuse or fail to answer transparency questions fully and truthfully within an acceptable timescale.

You’ve got to ask yourself why a pro-business, Conservative Government felt they had to include provisions like that? Simple.  With Big Tech there is no longer any trust and “voluntary” is a ship that has sailed and sunk. Including a reference to both of them in your headline pitch suggests the copy writer hasn’t been paying attention, or is it that old arrogance and tone-deafness kicking in again?

Restless energy

The stand out reason why being in Brussels was so great was because the air was full of urgent, restless energy. A lot of this came from the presence of major leadership figures from campaigning NGOs.  Among other things, this forcefully reminded us all of the limitations of Zoom and similar.  The impromptu networking, rapidly arranged meetings in the margins, simply cannot be replicated by even the most proficient chat box users.

I do sense that the tide is turning but it is turning because we are abandoning voluntarism as we realise we now inhabit a world of zero trust. The internet is a disruptive technology. This is our disruptive moment in the world of internet governance and policy making. Banks, energy companies, transport businesses, you name it. They all live and flourish within a framework of laws and publicly stated standards. So will the internet.

Under the wise tutelage and leadership of uber guru Ernie Allan, Field Marshal Iain Drennan’s summing up was a tour de force and a tour d’horizon, full of optimism, full of resolve, expressed eloquently in the declaration adopted at the end. Note in particular the  declaration’s announcement of the formation of a sub-group of Governments within the WPGA. Another sign of the times.

I suspect when the WPGA meets again in conclave the internet will be a much better place for children at least as measured by the fall in the levels of online sexual exploitation. If the Brussels conference was not the actual turning point for that, it was certainly a key moment when the arrival of the turning point was recognised.

A safer now and a better future. That ship is sailing from landlocked Brussels.