Baroness Joanna Shields OBE Keynote Speech


National Forum for the Protection of Children and Adolescents Victims of Sexual Exploitation in the Context of Internet Pornography

Your Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen, I would like to thank the Brazilian Government for organising this important Forum to discuss the steps that must be taken to protect children and adolescents from the abhorrent crime of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. I am grateful for this opportunity to be with you today and I remain hopeful that progress is possible. Together, we can unite and answer the urgent call to protect children from the criminals who use technology to harm, abuse and sexually exploit them.

Over the past six months, our global community has been engaged in fighting a truly unprecedented health emergency. The coronavirus pandemic has transcended borders and impacted families, businesses, communities, and ways of life across the globe.

Yet, what many are not aware of is that under this pandemic lies another, as insidious and destructive as COVID-19, and that’s t pandemic of child abuse and online exploitation is attacking our children en masse from within their own homes. It is a crime which is now impacting millions of children all over the world, and there is no mask, gel or vaccine powerful enough to stop it.

As the pandemic raged through our communities and lockdowns were enforced, digital connectivity uplifted us, keeping our friends and families close, our businesses operating and, thankfully, our children occupied. Yet, this very same technology has also slowly and progressively been facilitating unprecedented new forms of sexual abuse crimes against children on a global scale. We must urgently and actively acknowledge that the social media platforms that connect, inspire and empower us, are also enabling adults with a sexual interest in children to groom, abuse them. Technology helps them document their sexual depravity in digital images and videos that live on on the internet. They even document through live streamings depicting unspeakable crimes against children.

The internet was intended to be a positive force in society.  I know because I helped build some of the world leading internet companies as an early executive at Google, Bebo, Aol and Facebook. And as these new communications platforms were created and became ubiquitous in our lives, I believed then that these products and services we were creating would bring the world together, would connect us with information and ideas and foster understanding and tolerance. I believed that our inventions would liberate society, democratise access to information and bring opportunity to all. But looking back now, at best, I was naive. Just over a decade ago, that changed.  I started to see the cracks in the shiny veneer and I raised the alarm. What we didn’t anticipate were the unintended negative consequences of a connected society and the potential for our products to harm.  

When I realised the scale and impact of online child sexual abuse, I could no longer look away.  I had to take action.  The tipping point came in late 2012, when I was summoned to a meeting at 10 Downing Street with then Prime Minister, David Cameron.  The Prime Minister was deeply troubled. He had just met with the grieving parents of April Jones, a little girl from South Wales who had been abducted, assaulted and brutally murdered. Evidence confirmed that her killer had become addicted to child sexual abuse material online. Little April was just five years old.

As a mother, it was an anguishing wake-up call and as a leader in the tech industry, I felt sick that we weren't doing more to police our systems and rid them of this violent and illegal material. Something had to change, and I knew that I was in a unique position to drive that change. A few weeks later, I left my post at Facebook to join the UK government, first as the digital adviser to Prime Minister Cameron and then leading the online harms and crimes agenda as the first Minister for Internet Safety and Security.

In building and scaling some of the world's most innovative companies over 25 years, my career had always been guided by the belief that the technology we were building was a force for good. But that belief was shaken as I saw that same technology subverted for evil. The same principles of scale and ubiquity that make internet companies and their products so powerful were being leveraged to exploit and abuse children en masse and I simply couldn’t stand still without doing something about it. I realised that technology must start working for us, and not the other way around.

That’s also why in 2014 I founded WePROTECT, to galvanise global attention to this emerging and unthinkable crime against children and unify a multi-stakeholder alliance to act in ways proportionate to the threat.

Two years later we joined forces with the US/EU Global Alliance Against Child Abuse Online and today, the WePROTECT Global Alliance has 97 countries, 32 of the biggest names in the global technology industry, leading law enforcement agencies and 34 civil society organisations and international instituions as members and partners. Together, we have come a long way over the course of these six years, and yet, we are still very much aware we are nowhere near being finished fighting and achieving our goals.  

The very same sense of urgency that led me to found WePROTECT is still what motivates all of us. We must keep striving to do more because the evil we are fighting inflicts unspeakable harm to our children and the threat multiplies each time a child connects.

The pandemic of child sexual abuse and exploitation online is raging and claiming the lives of children at alarming rates.  In 2019 alone, in the US, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 18.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse material by US technology companies. According to academic experts, at any given moment an estimated 750,000 offenders are looking to connect with children online across the globe for sexual purposes. A highly alarming number especially if we consider that a total of 122 million more children have recently come online, based on UNICEF estimates that 1 in 3 internet users is a child. That is why the time to come together to define policies and decisive action has never been more urgent. We are not doing enough to stop this heinous crime, full stop.  Sexual predators are stealing the innocence of our children and destroying the lives of millions of children each year. These criminals have become experts at obfuscation and the sophistication of the networks they have created all too often enabling them to elude detection and prosecution.  

If I can take a moment to explain how this abuse happens online and the forms it takes, I think it will be easier to understand how we can combat it.  There are two primary routes for sexual predators and paedophiles to commit their crimes against children online.  One is adults with sexual intent interacting with children and the other is the creation of and sharing of online abuse images and videos.

Abusers use the apps and social platforms that we all use to groom, recruit and exploit children en masse.  They pose as young people to gain their trust.  They convince them to record, create and share sexually explicit images of themselves and then blackmail these children into even more heinous acts with threats of exposure to their parents, teachers and friends.  It is an insidious circle of abuse that escalates and often leads to depression, self harm and even suicide.  And all too often, these criminals lure these children from the virtual world to meet in the physical world with devastating consequences.  

Another way this abuse manifests is through live streaming services we have all been using extensively through the pandemic but in this case for as little as $15 USD, children and even infants are offered up for abuse on demand. This heinous acts of sex abuse are recorded and made available on demand.

The other route of abuse is the creation of and sharing of online abuse images and videos.  The sheer numbers of this trade craft of sexual predators and paedophiles have resulted in a virtual marketplace of abuse.  Last year only there were a total of 13.3 million images processed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and 46 million images in Europol’s repository. These abusers take their craft to the darkest corners of the web where a global community of abusers are waiting.  They gain strength in each image or video of a child being harmed and they compete with each other to claim the most extreme levels of child sexual violence as their own.  It is vile and disgusting and the worst form of abuse imaginable.  Children, even infants abused for as little as a few dollars and sometimes murdered for sexual edification.  

These are not lone individuals, for offenders have found ways to connect, share tactics, strategies and their devastating acts of abuse. They pay to watch the live-streams of children being sexually assaulted all over the world using anonymous access and crypto-currencies to obfuscate their crimes.

And what’s worse is direct access to kids in the privacy of their homes has never been easier. Young people have always been susceptible to dangerous influences when they are unsupervised but today young people are almost always on and connected,  which makes the threat has never been more pernicious.

Today children are groomed by people they have never met and would never have come in contact with if it weren't for the devices in their pockets. Predators meet young people through popular multiplayer video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite, and on social networks they use everyday such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. And yet, internet platforms and device manufacturers continue to fail to stop abusers who hide behind anonymity to obfuscate their crimes.

Regrettably, Facebook has announced its intent to deploy end-to-end encryption across WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Messenger. NCMEC estimates that this decision alone will result in the loss of over 12 million reports of child sexual abuse material. And with it, 12 million cries for help will go unheard.

Facebook alone reported nearly 60 million photos and videos this year, more than 85 percent of the total reports in 2019. With its transition to end-to-end encryption, the company will no longer have visibility to these abusers enabling them to act with impunity.

With an increase in reports of child sexual abuse material online by 10,000% since 2004, our work to stop this heinous crime is ever more urgent. According to hotline network INHOPE, 91% of CSAM assessed in 2018 depicted children under 13 years and in many cases even infants. Intelligence evidence revealed that the crimes perpetrated against children are escalating at an alarming rate and at a level of brutality previously unimaginable. In one case, an offender joined an online private discussion group where new members were required to post abuse images as a right of passage and a token to participate. To engage in the group, this offender raped a six-month-old girl and sexually assaulted a two-year-old boy, uploading the footage onto an encrypted app and sharing it through a file-sharing site.

Moreover, the stress and the isolation of the current COVID-19 crisis has increased the risk of those with a sexual interest in children to act on their impulses. In the US alone, NCMEC registered a 106% increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation. This is on top of the 70 million cases of child abuse material reported in 2019, which represented a nearly 50% increase over 2018 figures.

When I speak about this crime and how it is perpetrated, there is often a visceral reaction — a feeling of revulsion. My words are met with comments like, "it's too horrible to think about" or "I just can't hear that". But we must hear it.  And we must see and acknowledge it for what it is and the harm it causes.  I have borne witness to these stories and they will forever be etched in my mind. It is only through recognising that these statistics represent real lives and that within every case is a heartbreaking story of an abused child and the immense pain of the families struggling to cope with the burden of how they might have prevented their children from falling prey to predators and feeling powerless to stop their suffering.

Unprecedented threats demand unprecedented actions. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that no one country alone cannot stop the virus from spreading.  The entire world must mobilise to contain the outbreak and protect people from becoming ill. Governments, scientists and academics must cross borders to work together to combat this threat to the health of our citizens. So why should halting the epidemic of child abuse and exploitation online be any different? Why is it that when it comes to the protection of children from online sexual exploitation, a global health emergency in its own right that just like COVID-19 is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society the hardest, we don’t take equivalent actions?  

We have all gathered here today because we care deeply about protecting children from the epidemic of online sexual exploitation, but we must recognise that expressing concern alone will not change the outcome. The world doesn’t become safer because we wish it to be, it becomes safer when we make children our priority and we act on their behalf. That is why I am immensely proud of the work of the WePROTECT Global Alliance, and yet, I cannot escape the feeling that the momentum of this crime is overtaking our capabilities and capacity to stop it.

Nonetheless, it is in times like this that we must remember that where there is a shadow, there must also be light. We can do this together.  I believe that technology fused with human intelligence and compassion can help to transform society to remake and renew the world.  

It’s up to us to ensure technology is used for good, and provide a safe digital world for children to learn and to be inspired without fear. Technology is neither good nor evil, it’s how we use it that makes the difference. The Internet can be an ally.  it can indeed improve young lives for the better but only if we stand as a united front and commit to stopping online sexual abuse. This is a crime that transcends borders. No one country, company or NGO can tackle it alone. We must be united to protect all children, everywhere.

That is why at WePROTECT we built together a Model National Response framework to support all countries in achieving a level of proficiency in fighting this crime. The Model builds on many years of work and service by experts and practitioners and while it does not seek to prescribe activities or set out a single approach, it describes the capabilities needed for effective child protection, it highlights good practice from countries that are already delivering these capabilities, and it signposts organisations that can provide further guidance and support to countries seeking to develop or enhance their existing capability.

By way of example, one of WePROTECT’s most valuable partners is the UNICEF End Violence Against Children Global Partnership and Fund. I had the pleasure of launching this fund at the UN in 2016 with an initial grant of £50 million from the UK government and I am immensely proud of what the team have achieved. While WeProtect serves as a global coordinator of all stakeholders involved in the fight, the EVAC Fund deploys targeted investments to strengthen national, regional and global capabilities. In Latin America only, the EVAC Fund is currently supporting projects aimed at identifying current systems of prevention and response to online child sexual exploitation and abuse in Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador and more. Most recently, EVAC and WePROTECT aligned in response to COVID19 and what we accomplished together is a testament to the power of constructive digital collaboration.

Every single initiative matters, every coordinated policy counts but to be successful - online child abuse and exploitation must be recognised and acted on by every legislative body around the world. Tackling this pervasive and transnational challenge is not easy, and I am encouraged by the progress made by WePROTECT Global Alliance, however, there is still much more to be done.

Last November 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on protecting children's right to a safe experience online. This resolution, announced on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, calls on all Member States to enhance cooperation between law enforcement authorities and civil society organisations, and to support organisations that fight child sexual abuse and exploitation online , such as the WePROTECT Global Alliance. Moreover, the EU has a continued commitment to the fight against OCSE, with the  European Commission currently engaged in the preparation of an EU strategy to tackle this issue which will focus on preventing the abuse from happening in the first place.

I particularly welcome the proactive approach of the EU, as I believe that ending OCSE will heavily involve preventing harm before it happens, and not only working to address it when it does. Policing does play a role, however for every offender we arrest, countless others remain.

So you might ask why is the global community not more outraged about this crisis? Over the past six years, our world has been distracted by hyper partisan disagreements, divisive narratives, and theatrical personality politics acted out on social media. Today, the conversation about regulating technology companies and limiting their sphere of influence has become confused and partisan.  What’s more, the issues caused by technology are so numerous and multidimensional, it is difficult for any policymaker or legislator to keep up.

Unregulated technology is colliding with societal norms and values.  It is threatening our privacy and security, altering our perception of truth and algorithmically amplifying hatred and extremism. The very communications platforms we've come to rely on as our digital lives have evolved now threaten safety, stability and the rule of law. With this as a backdrop, the global dialogue about protecting children from exploitation online has often lost oxygen. In this vacuum, technology companies have continued their meteoric growth, in scope and profits. And yet, those with the responsibility for policing their applications, operating systems and platforms to rid them of this vile crime have all too often, been given a free pass.

Of course, I recognise that innovations like encryption are a vital tool to protect privacy and security. But children deserve to be safe and the right to their own privacy must be protected too. We must not give offenders the cover to go undetected and unpunished. I cannot see any apparent commercial reason for doing this, and equally, there has been no user-driven revolt or outcry demanding that Facebook take this action. And yet, despite the enormous pressure being placed on Facebook by governments all across the world, they persist with this policy.

When it comes to big tech companies, the platitudes of good intentions have fallen far short of the actions needed to stop this heinous crime. The time has come to prioritise the safety of children over theoretical and vague notions of privacy for all. The right for children to be safe from harm is paramount and must be protected. Would you let your child ride in a car with no brakes? Would you give them medicine that has not been tested? No, of course not. Then how can we let them use apps, games and services where they are at risk of falling prey to sexual predators?

A timely announcement recently has brought a sliver of hope. “The Technology Coalition”, a group of leading tech giants who in March proclaimed their commitment to a set of 11 “Voluntary Principles” to counter Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, has now backed a plan to ‘eradicate’ this crime. But promises have been made before and promises can be broken,, which leads me to my final point.

If we are to safeguard young lives, we must sustain our scrutiny and ensure that statements of intent and press releases are translated into clear and measurable results. Companies must be held accountable and take full responsibility for the safety of online users on their services.

We must join forces together and demand adoption of regulation in all countries to ensure that the companies whose products enable children to connect and share information have safety directly built-in. In particular, we must demand the implementation of the "Safety by Design" principles developed by the e-Safety Commissioner in Australia. And, if those safety mechanisms fail, we must hold the companies that build those products and profit from them to account.

Today I will close by asking you all to join me in demanding a different outcome for our children. Our children have the right to a safe and happy childhood. They have a right to be guided, shielded and loved. To connect, learn and dream without fear of being targeted and abused by predators as they explore the digital world. Their right is our responsibility and it’s up to us to stop the tragic consequences of child abuse online, And keep humanity’s children safe from those who would harm and exploit them. We must call for change from the technology giants betraying a generation through inaction or indifference. We must speak for the voiceless, Bring hope to the hopeless and fight for the powerless. We must protect the right to a safe and happy childhood.

Thank you.