Mr. Secretary-General, your Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the state of the digital world today and specifically the urgent need to protect children from online abuse and exploitation.
What we experienced in the first five months of 2020 has been unprecedented in our lifetimes. 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. But what you may not be aware of is that during this time, another pandemic was attacking children from within their own homes. Child abuse and online sexual exploitation have exploded during this crisis. The rise of unsupervised screen time, coupled with the normalization of young people sharing sexually explicit images of themselves has made them vulnerable to predators.
It is estimated that at any given moment, there are 750,000 offenders looking to exploit and abuse children online. Moreover, the stress and the isolation of the COVID-19 crisis has increased the risk of those with a sexual interest in children to act on their impulses. In the US alone, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (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 percent increase over 2018 figures.
When COVID-19 emerged, we shut down the entire economy to stop it from spreading. We made tradeoffs. That’s what society does in times of crisis. So why is it that when it comes to the protection of children from online sexual exploitation, a global health emergency in its own right, we don’t take equivalent actions?
Child Sexual Abuse Material is no longer relegated to the dark corners of web: every app and online platform that allows users to post or share images and videos is a recruitment target. Live streamed sexual abuse of a child and even infants can be accessed for as little as $15. And yet, internet platforms and device manufacturers continue to allow abusers to hide behind anonymity and obfuscate their crimes. Facebook has announced its intent to deploy end-to-end encryption across WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Messenger. NCMEC estimates that what will be lost as a result are over 12 million reports of child sexual abuse material. And with it, 12 million cries for help will not be heard.
Let me be clear. Encryption is a vital tool to protect privacy and security but children deserve to be safe and their rights must be protected too. We must not give offenders the cover to go undetected and unpunished.
A timely announcement today brings a sliver of hope. A group of leading tech giants who in March proclaimed their commitment to voluntary principles have now backed a plan to ‘eradicate’ child sexual abuse online. But promises have been made before and 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. Incidentally, during the pandemic, the means available to leading tech companies to make change happen and protect children have grown exponentially as their profits and share prices have soared.
The statistics of this escalating crisis paint a distressing picture but behind every case is a heart-breaking story of an abused child. I have borne witness to these stories and they will forever be etched in my mind. And just like COVID-19, this pandemic is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society the hardest.
This is a crime that transcends borders. No one country or company can tackle it alone. That is why, in 2014, I founded WePROTECT to galvanise global attention to this emerging and unthinkable crime against children and unify stakeholders to act. 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, leading law enforcement agencies, civil society organisations and technology companies as members and partners. Together we built a Model National Response framework to support all countries in achieving a level of proficiency in fighting this crime and we support the emerging online safety industry who are building innovative solutions that protect children from harm online. We believe that technology in itself is neither good nor evil; it’s up to us to make it a powerful ally and use its transformative power to heal and to stop this heinous crime.
One of our most valuable partners is the UNICEF End Violence Against Children Global Partnership and Fund. 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. Most recently we aligned in response to COVID19 and what we accomplished together is testament to the power of constructive digital collaboration. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of EVAC’s work in the UNSG Roadmap for digital cooperation. We are also fortunate to have the support of the EU and welcomed the resolution adopted last November by the European Parliament calling on all Member States to actively support organisations like the WeProtect Global Alliance in the fight to stop child sexual exploitation online.
I come to this forum with over 30 years of tech industry experience having served as a senior executive at Google, Facebook and Aol and in government as the UK’s Minister for Internet Safety & Security. What I have learned is that technology fused with human intelligence and compassion can help to transform society to remake and renew the world.
Indeed, at BenevolentAI, where I now serve as CEO, we build technology that harnesses the power of all of the world’s biomedical data to enable scientists to discover life-changing medicines. In this mission to preserve human health, we hope to transform a broken system that is currently leaving too many patients with no hope of a cure. Similarly, purposeful technology is one of the most powerful tools in preventing child sexual abuse and exploitation.
As we gather here today in celebration of the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation and in recognition of the power of international coordinated action, we must simultaneously be mindful that every young life damaged is our collective responsibility. United, we will stop this heinous crime, support and protect survivors and ensure the digital world is a safe place for children to learn without fear, to experience and participate in all that life has to offer.