Child Sexual Exploitation Online—a Growing Risk For The Technology Sector

While Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies are now widely-held components of many investor portfolios, they are also at the center of an escalating trend in children being sexually exploited and abused online. The technology used in sex crimes against children is ubiquitous, from smartphones to gaming consoles, and through various apps, text messaging, social media sites, cloud storage, and more. And yet, ICT companies rarely disclose how they are combating these growing risks, from identifying and blocking child sex images, to investing in new solutions to stay ahead of the abusers.

In 2017, CBIS began working with child welfare advocates to better hold companies accountable, calling for actions to find and disrupt such exploitation—within the confines of the law and consumer privacy rights. U.S. law compels several types of ICT companies to report child sex abuse content when found, but it doesn’t compel companies to actively look for it.

Some 50,000 new child sex abuse images appear online worldwide each year. To combat these risks, #investors are pressuring #tech companies to adopt practices to protect children online from sexual harm. —Christian Brothers Investment Service #ProxyPreview

How Big Is the Problem? 

Interpol reported about 4,000 unique child sex abuse images worldwide in 1995, but the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime now estimates at least 50,000 new such images appearing online each year. Additionally:

  • The Internet Watch Foundation noted that 55 percent of child sex imagery reported to it in 2017 was of children 10 or younger, and that domain names showing children being sexually abused jumped by 57 percent from 2016 to 2017;

  • The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has sent over 160,000 notices to electronic service providers regarding public web pages where suspected abuse images appeared.

  • According to nonprofit Thorn, 75 percent of sex-trafficked minors are now advertised online.

What Can Investors Do?

CBIS has organized child protection experts and investors from five countries to develop Tech Expectations for Combating Child Sex Exploitation Online. That guidance will be released in 2019 and will be used to benchmark ICT companies globally on their performance and policies to protect children online from sexual harm, and to identify leading practices that other investors can use in engagements with their technology holdings. CBIS filed shareholder resolutions with Apple, Verizon Communications and Sprint for the 2019 proxy season (some since withdrawn), after poor responses from those companies during 2017-18. Other resolutions and letters to companies will be launched this year.  We are asking companies to commit to:

  • Robust policies in “Terms of Service” (user) agreements for customers, software developers, and third-parties, with clear discussion of monitoring and enforcement of those terms, and how users can report child exploitation online. 

  • Stronger relationships with child protection advocates, to understand and keep up with trends and risks.  

  • Online Safety Teams, in-house, where team members actively monitor their systems, products, and business model for illegal/endangering content, and figure out how to innovate to stay ahead of the growing risks. 

  • Software or tools to identify, track or halt abusive imagery.

  • Stronger content/parental controls and shifting that burden from parents-only, to shared obligations between companies who know the technology and caregivers tasked with keeping up.

  • User education, social media, and training for parents, children and educators on online risks and best practices in protecting children from online harm.

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Tracey C. Rembert
Director of Catholic Responsible Investing, Christian Brothers Investment Services, Inc. (CBIS)