The Space Between Us
Interfaith Summit for Child Dignity in the Digital World
Abu Dhabi, UAE
November 19, 2018
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, we gather here today at the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities to discuss one of the most urgent problems of our time: the exploitation and abuse of children through digital technologies.
I want to commend the United Arab Emirates for bringing us together and for its vision and unwavering commitment to this cause. It is fitting that on the eve of World Children’s Day, we recognise that it is only through dialogue and collective action that we can address the common challenges we face as humankind. And no challenge is as important as protecting the rights and lives of our precious children from harm in the digital world.
Child exploitation and abuse online is an unprecedented crime in terms of its global scale, its devastating impact, its inconceivable immorality and its technological complexity. To give you some context, by the time this summit concludes today, 50 children will be exposed to online sexual abuse in the United Kingdom alone.
Last October, in endorsing the Declaration of Rome at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress, Pope Francis called on religious leaders to “join forces, realizing that we need one another in order to seek and find the right means and approaches to address this challenge.” His hope was that religious leaders and communities of believers would share in this common effort, and today, that hope is being realised through the vision of the Interfaith Alliance. Over the next few days, we join together in a common cause to protect and support children of all faiths from harms and crimes online.
My personal perspective on this urgent challenge comes from a different vantage point than most of you gathered here. I am not a faith leader or a religious scholar. I spent over 25 years working in the technology industry alongside some of its greatest minds, who were without exception principled and well-meaning. However, in creating these products, we were so blinded by the excitement and possibilities that we failed to anticipate the unintended consequences.
We focused on the positive changes these platforms could bring to the world – empowerment, transparency, efficiency, and opportunity for all. We ignored the other consequences. The negative consequences. And there were – and are – so many.
I first became aware of these risks when I was the Chief Executive of Bebo, an early social network that was particularly appealing to young people, and later while leading Facebook’s international expansion in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Between these two social networks, we reached hundreds of millions of children.
Yet we had no idea of the potential harms to children that would be facilitated by the products we created, and when we first noticed cases of child grooming, we were stunned. Pedophiles under the cover of anonymity were interacting with unsuspecting young people in large numbers and sharing child sexual abuse images among communities of perpetrators. For me, this changed everything, and realising the gravity of the situation, I made stopping this heinous crime a life mission.
I have spent much of the last decade fighting online child exploitation and abuse. Serving as a digital adviser at No. 10 and then as the UK’s first Minister for Internet Safety & Security, I knew that in order to have an impact on these platforms that transcended boundaries, we had to take action globally. To that end, with the support of Prime Minister David Cameron, I founded the WePROTECT Global Alliance with a mission to end child sexual exploitation and abuse online through coordinated national and global action. Together with support from our partners, especially in the United Arab Emirates, we now count 85 countries among our members, plus international law enforcement and civil society organisations and global technology companies. We have grown our movement from strength to strength, assembling the influence, resources and expertise to transform how this crime is dealt with worldwide, to safeguard more victims and apprehend more perpetrators.
Many of the people and organisations here today have been together with us on this journey; people who recognized years ago that this was a fast-growing problem and have worked painstakingly to tackle it. I want to thank them. All these people and the initiatives they represent combine to form a powerful movement to tackle the enormity of the challenge we all face. But there is so much more to do.
And if there’s one thing that we have learned through this battle, it’s that the technology that brings us together also expands the space between us. It creates a void, and this void needs to be filled by a stronger social fabric, stronger faith communities and stronger belief systems. And this is why we are here today.
Since time immemorial, religion has been the guardian of values, the steward of morals and the beacon of hope on humanity’s path to be the best version of itself.
When religions work together, they can change the world. For thousands of years, religions have established society’s moral code. Our sacred texts bear witness to our shared values and beliefs. Our faith helps us understand the world around us, and we pass this code from generation to generation in an everlasting chain.
However, during the past two decades, a technology revolution has weakened the chain. Powerful new mediums of communication have entered our lives and have eroded the links that have held us together for thousands of years.
The space between religion and innovation has always been difficult to bridge. Throughout history, as societies transitioned towards the acceptance of technology as the new normal, they faced enormous challenges. Change is always difficult, but this time, technology is transforming every facet of our communities, our society, our world. And we can’t turn back.
At first, we welcomed these newfound superpowers. We celebrated the fact that children have instant access to more information than their parents ever had. We relished the potential of connecting to others anywhere in the world, instantaneously. We loved the fact that algorithms embedded in products and apps made decisions for us: helped us decide what to watch, where to go, what to eat, who to like.
And while we were all focusing on the magic of what this technology was doing, we forgot to look at what it was undoing. We forgot to ask what happens when children no longer need or seek guidance from adults because they can find answers to all their questions online. What happens when a complete stranger can pass judgment on you and amplify it to millions of people. What happens when our actions are hidden behind anonymity and we are no longer accountable for our choices – right or wrong.
And make no mistake, sexual exploitation online is a global threat and the most urgent priority. Today we are facing an epidemic of teenagers sharing sexually explicit images of themselves. Often those images fall into the hands of nefarious individuals or groups. And when faced with the shame of exposure or extortion, children are self-harming or even committing suicide. Children are being manipulated into on-demand sexual abuse using live streaming services available on all social networking platforms. And the dark web has become a haven for the most depraved pedophiles and networks of abusers who are sharing their abuse of toddlers and even infants.
And so we find ourselves in a new world. A new world that is challenging the historical role of faith to lead, guide, nurture and protect our children. A new world that is forever changed by a device that fits in the palm of your hand.
A device that on one hand, has become the conduit to everything that’s great and good about this new world – but at the same time, exposure to the morally decrepit and dangerous. Though light and darkness have always co-existed in the world, this pernicious force is more dangerous because the tech that is used to harm is the same tech that everyone must use to thrive in the world today. Today, so much of young life happens in the space between the digital device and this new world, and we are not in control of how our children interact with the world around them. Pornography, extreme violence, radical ideologies, cyber abuse are all one click away.
And because technology empowers equally, we don’t just connect with good people, we connect with bad people, too. That is why some have called the internet “the greatest social experiment in history.” But unfortunately, we are only beginning to understand that it's the children who have been the innocent victims of this grand experiment.
Around-the-clock digital access is literally re-wiring the physiology and development of their growing brains. And the exposure to violent, explicit and extreme content is desensitising children and allowing them to see horrible things that they cannot unsee.
And while all this was happening, the elders, the parents, the teachers, the faith leaders charged with nurturing children and bringing them to maturity were unprepared. Technological change like what we are experiencing is transformational. We don’t just get the old world PLUS the digital world; technology morphs into an entirely new world. We don’t get to choose just the good parts of this digital revolution. It’s a package deal.
And whilst we mourn innocence lost, technology is only getting more sophisticated. Artificial intelligence is already interacting with children in their daily lives through Siri, Alexa, Spotify, Netflix, the list goes on. We must get ahead of this next wave as AI begins augmenting human intelligence in ways we never thought possible. This is why, over the next two days, we must commit to unified action.
And now, as the technologically altered world our children will inherit takes shape, we must tackle this challenge in every place of worship, in every community, in every home, no matter how difficult or sensitive the topics are. We must give parents the tools to help them guide their children to a safe and protected path. We must fill the space between the devices and this new world with love, understanding and support.
The great poet Rumi said, “To me, nothing in the world is as precious as a child’s smile.” Together, united in our humanity, we must protect every smile.
I urge this forum to make protecting and supporting children and families as they navigate the digital world a top priority in your congregations. Let us fill the space between us, and create a better version of ourselves so that our children can live in the best world we can give them.
And let us work together so that we can look into the eyes of the world’s children and know that we are not failing them.