Vatican congress calls on public, private, faith sectors to combat child sexual abuse online

On Oct. 6, a group of 150 experts from various disciplines and organizations around the world presented “The Declaration of Rome” to Pope Francis at the Vatican, pledging to protect children and young people in the digital age.

“In this era of the internet, the world faces unprecedented challenges if it is to preserve the rights and dignity of children and protect them from abuse and exploitation,” the declaration states. “These challenges require new thinking and approaches, heightened global awareness and inspired leadership.”

Screenshot excerpt from letter from Child Dignity in the Digital World

The declaration contains commitments for world leaders in government, religion and law enforcement, as well as technology companies and other private- and public-sector groups. It was produced at the World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World sponsored by the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in partnership with the WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online and Telefono Azzurro, Italy’s first helpline for children at risk.

Call-to-action for technology companies
The declaration calls on technology companies to “commit to the development and implementation of tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the internet, and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims.”

In my role as an industry representative to the international advisory board of the WePROTECT Global Alliance, I had the great privilege of attending the World Congress and speaking about Microsoft’s long-standing commitment to protecting children online, and specifically our contributions to the fight against online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

I outlined Microsoft’s four-pronged strategy to protect children and our work to eliminate illegal child sexual abuse imagery from our platforms and services. As a technology company, we have a responsibility to create software, devices and services that have safety features built in from the outset. We devise and implement internal policies, standards and procedures that extend beyond legal requirements and put child safety at the center of our product development and operational efforts. Because no one entity or organization can successfully tackle these issues alone, we embrace a multi-stakeholder model, and partner with others in the tech industry, civil society and elsewhere to develop tools and techniques for identifying, reporting and removing illegal material on the open web and from our hosted consumer services. We also work to educate users about online risks and offer them tools and resources, so they can help protect themselves and their families.

As noted in my remarks, across our platforms and services, child sexual exploitation and abuse receives our utmost attention. As global citizens, we at Microsoft believe that eradicating the online creation and distribution of child sexual abuse material is a universal call to action. This sentiment was expressed by many throughout the congress, with all noting that significant progress will only be made if all groups work together to stamp out this heinous imagery.

Actions for other stakeholder groups
The World Congress brought together representatives from government, law enforcement, civil society, the technology industry, the public health sector, the Catholic church and other faith-based organizations, to learn from one another, share best practices and discuss a collective way forward to safeguard children from a range of potential online harms.

“While undoubtedly the internet creates numerous benefits and opportunities in terms of social inclusion and educational attainment, today, content that is extreme and dehumanizing is available literally at children’s fingertips,” the declaration states. “The proliferation of social media means insidious acts, such as cyberbullying, harassment and sextortion, are becoming commonplace.”

The declaration calls on other stakeholder groups to engage by, among other things:

  • Launching a global awareness campaign
  • Mobilizing members of every faith to join a global child-protection movement
  • Strengthening laws to better protect children and hold abusers accountable
  • Improving treatment programs for child victims, and
  • Enhancing training for medical professionals to more readily recognize indicators of sexual abuse.

Workshop discussions highlight other focus areas
In addition to the plenary sessions, I had the pleasure of serving as a workshop leader, organizing discussions among a small group of attendees from academia, government, civil society and the faith-based community. Our sessions were lively and engaging, and I thank the members of my working group for their participation and contributions.

We surfaced the need for common definitions and terminology, additional research, awareness-raising, education, culturally specific engagements and participation from even more stakeholder groups. At the end of the first day of the workshops, one participant concluded our session with this comment, “I love the internet age. The internet is a mirror on society; it’s facilitating and enabling (some bad acts and bad actors), but it’s helping to expose these issues, as well.”

Pope Francis expresses concern and commitment
In his address to the congress on the final day, Pope Francis accepted the Declaration of Rome and made clear his concern for the issues and the commitment of the church and its readiness to help. The pope expressed concern over the spread of extreme pornography online, sexting among young people, and online bullying, as well as sextortion, the solicitation of minors for sexual purposes, and the online trafficking of persons, prostitution and the commissioning and live-viewing of rape and violence against minors in certain parts of the world.

“As all of you know, in recent years the church has come to acknowledge her own failures in providing for the protection of children: extremely grave facts have come to light, for which we have to accept our responsibility before God, before the victims and before public opinion,” Pope Francis said. “For this very reason, as a result of these painful experiences and the skills gained in the process of conversion and purification, the church today feels especially bound to work strenuously and with foresight for the protection of minors and their dignity, not only within her own ranks, but in society as a whole and throughout the world.”

There was mention of convening a follow-up congress after progress can be made and measured in perhaps two or three years’ time.

Learn more
The pope’s full address can be found here, while a list of speakers and other information about the congress is available at www.childdignity2017.org. To learn more about what Microsoft is doing to protect children online, see my remarks to the congress posted here, and visit our online safety website:  www.microsoft.com/saferonline.

 

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