THE BLOG

Protecting Our Children From Harm in the Digital World as Well as the Physical

18/11/2015 09:41 GMT | Updated 18/11/2016 10:12 GMT

We are raising the first generation of children to grow up with more access to information than its parents. With the ability to communicate and connect with people anywhere in the world and with the curiosity to discover the world beyond their home, school and community.

Technology is enriching people's lives and changing the very nature of how we interact with each other. Young people are at the forefront of this change, challenging the boundaries and learning entirely new ways to live life online. In the process, adolescence itself is being transformed beyond recognition.

Let's face it, none of us are prepared for the power technology bestows upon us and our children, nor are we prepared for the perils. For technology is blind. It empowers not only the curious, the creative, the compassionate. It also empowers the criminal, the corrupt, the coercive.

In a profound act of role reversal, we as parents, educators, law enforcement agencies, civil society, who are meant to be the guardians of children, find ourselves behind the curve. But it remains our duty to stand at the gates of childhood and protect our children from harm and that means protecting them in the digital world as well as in the physical world.

And doing so requires recognition that we cannot do it alone. The internet has no boundaries and we need to leverage the power of technology and act in global partnership as governments, law enforcement, and NGOs to protect children from the unimaginable horrors of this crime.

Increasingly offenders are using the Internet to interact with children for sexual purposes. This isn't only about adults grooming children for later contact offline. Today, children are often coerced to produce new sexual images of themselves without ever meeting their abuser. And in some cases, their abuse is being live streamed to paying customers over the Internet.

Tragically, once an image of child abuse is on the Internet, without intervention, it remains there forever, and may be shared over and over again, increasing the impact of the abuse that child has suffered. This dreadful crime does not end when and where the image is produced - the child continues to relive the trauma of their abuse.

Ever faster mobile Internet access and other factors such as anonymous access

and new cryptocurrency payment methods facilitate this crime and increase the likelihood of online abuse in the future. Simply put - it's never been easier to take advantage of children online.

But these trends are not inevitable. I believe wholeheartedly in the transformative

power of industry and government coming together to tackle this crime. Before becoming Minister of Internet Safety & Security in the UK, I spent 25 years building digital technology products and services and I believe that the partnership between government and digital innovators is absolutely vital to staying ahead of this vile crime.

In 2013 the Prime Minister asked me to take the lead in working in partnership with technology companies to develop solutions to the alarming escalation child sexual abuse imagery online. The WeProtect technology alliance has resulted in pioneering new solutions making the Internet safer for children all over the world. But for all of the progress that has been made and the goodwill engaged, the problem of online child abuse and exploitation continues to grow and evolve in new and ever more challenging ways.

Last December, at the WePROTECT Summit in London, Prime Minister David Cameron illustrated this point when he spoke of online child sexual exploitation as, "a major international crime of our age" and describing abuse of children happening on an almost industrial scale, with networks spanning the world and children being abused to order.

The Prime Minister's WePROTECT Summit led to an agreement and global statement of action by countries, leading technology companies and charities to tackle this heinous crime. These landmark commitments mandate concrete action to identify and rescue victims, apprehend the perpetrators of this abuse, and remove child abuse images from the Internet.

Working in partnership with government, Google and Microsoft have recently made significant progress in removing pathways to child sexual abuse images in their search results. As a result Google has seen an eight-fold reduction in people searching for this material.

Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter have also agreed to receive 'hashes' - the digital 'fingerprints' - of child sexual abuse images from the Internet Watch Foundation to enable detection and removal of child sexual abuse material from their platforms and services.

Working together, I have no doubt that we can, and we will, eradicate this crime online and stop the devastating harm it causes.

This week leaders from dozens of governments, technology giants and charities will come together in Abu Dhabi for the second summit. Participating countries will be asked to build on the progress that has already been made and to make sure eliminating this form of exploitation is part of their own national response.

I believe that we have a moral imperative to engage, to act, and to develop solutions. The only way to combat this and stop more children from being abused is by taking urgent action now. I was heartened to see that the 193 Member States of the United Nations have included a target on ending violence against children in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

By including the fight to end violence against children with other important global issues such as battling poverty, fighting inequality and protecting the environment, we acknowledge the very real threat that child abuse poses to the future of all our communities and global society.

I'm sure we all agree that every child born today has the potential to dream, to invent and to amaze the world. But they must be able to do so creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. By supporting the WePROTECT initiative and joining our efforts across national borders, we can guarantee our children the future that they deserve and secure their safety in the digital world.

Baroness Shields is a Conservative peer, and minister for internet safety and security