Creating An Army of Digital Defenders To Stop Child Sexual Exploitation

This week, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, issued an op-ed in the UK's Daily Mail outlining the new proactive steps Google has committed to take in response to the accessibility of child pornography links via mainstream search platforms. Google stands alongside Facebook, Microsoft and many other technology companies that have stood up to be part of the proactive effort to combat the sexual exploitation of children.

Child abuse and sexual exploitation were not created by technology, but technology has significantly changed the dynamics of these crimes. Twenty years ago, those who participated in the sharing of child abuse imagery had to go to great lengths to document the abuse, find buyers and transmit images via the postal service. Today, if someone is interested, they simply need an Internet connection in order to share or download horrific abuse content within a few seconds. The increased ease of production and sharing has led to an explosion in content. In 2004, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received approximately 450,000 digital files containing apparent child pornography for victim identification. In 2011, they received nearly 18 million of these files. Even when one file is found, copies remain in circulation, revictimizing the child each time they're shared. In one example, more than 47,500 images of one child's abuse were found in nearly 5,000 child pornography cases since 2002.

As volume and access grows, so do the communities of offenders. Today, it is easier than ever to find like-minded individuals around the world who share a particular interest. There are hundreds of online communities of people who share and discuss this content on a regular basis. As people feel more comfortable, the community of offenders grows.

In addition to mainstream search and social platforms, the bulk of this content is shared on peer-to-peer and torrent networks, with the worst content often found in dark net environments. In 2009, an FBI study showed that in a given year there were nearly 22 million unique IP addresses sharing child pornography in peer-to-peer networks - 10 million of those within the United States.

Beyond child pornography, parts of the Internet have become virtual brothels where children are bought and sold for sex every day. At Thorn, we conduct a national survey of child sex trafficking victims to better understand the role technology plays in their recruitment, exploitation and escape. More than 70% of the children we've spoken with were sold online at some point while they were being trafficked. The Internet has taken much of the risk out of the buying and selling of humans, letting pimps market these children to hundreds of men at one time with a simple ad, and letting men browse a selection behind the safety of their computers.

These statistics can be fear-inducing, making us question the direction of morality in our society. Or, they can be a catalyst for action. At Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, we have chosen to act. We work specifically on driving technology innovation to combat child sexual exploitation. We invest in research and development to find new tools to combat predatory behavior. We collaborate with major search and social platforms to run deterrence programs and intervene with predators while they are seeking out child exploitation content or children to exploit. And we work with companies across the tech industry to move more organizations to a place of proactivity on this issue.

A critical component to driving this change is embracing the technologists and the companies at the forefront of innovation. We don't believe that technology is evil, but we do know it is used for evil purposes. Our job is to tip the scales. To put the best and brightest minds to work and ensure that technology is used to fight back against perpetrators, reverse these trends and protect our children.

This is not the kind of work that can be done by one strata of society alone. With millions of people participating in this crime, law enforcement cannot arrest its way out of the problem. We cannot sit back and blame technology for exposing a darkness that has always existed. Instead, we need to educate the innovators and deploy their talent and creativity to solve this issue.

As one survivor of sex trafficking asked us, "If my pimp was using the Internet to sell me, why wasn't anyone using it to help me?" We want to answer her now with an army of voices and talent that advocates for and creates the tools to find and protect children and to stop perpetrators from abusing them. Join us. Become a Digital Defender of Children.