Analysis

Why Big Tech Must Do More To Protect Kids From Online Porn And Predators 

   DailyWire.com
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The world we live in is almost completely digital. For young people, the Internet is increasingly used to learn, play, and connect with others across the globe and even across the street.

By age 11, more than half of American children own a smartphone, and on average, outside of schoolwork, teenagers spend more than seven hours viewing screen media each day.

While new technology has opened many positive ways for children to learn and grow, it has also unleashed a Pandora’s Box of threats to their well-being. Children today are targeted with an onslaught of predatory actions and online threats that no generation has ever faced before — and parents and teachers are overwhelmed trying to keep up.

Unfortunately, it’s not a question of if a child will face these threats online, it’s a matter of when.

Social media apps are one of the primary ways predators target vulnerable young people – by grooming, abusing, and exploiting them. The FBI estimates that as many as 500,000 people are a daily threat to kids online, and that children between the ages of 12 to 15 are most targeted by online predators. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported that in 2020, online enticement incidents spiked to 37,872, from 19,174 in 2019.

The digital world has even led many teenagers to self-produce and share child sexual exploitation images, a practice commonly known as “sexting.” This trend has led to many tragedies, including sextortion schemes and other forms of image-based sexual abuse, more commonly known as “revenge porn.” 

Many families are either unequipped or feel powerless to deal with the endless new pieces of technology introduced to their children, whether at school or from friends. This leaves children fending for themselves in a digital world infested with predators, hardcore pornography, image-based sexual abuse, and messages that encourage them to sell their bodies for “empowerment” or survival. Parents, teachers, advocates, and the children themselves have been drowning in this digital world with almost nowhere to turn to for help.

We as a society are able to recognize when collective accountability is needed across sectors in order to make a massive responsibility like driving safe for everyone. So why haven’t we applied the same logic to the Internet?

Look no further than Big Tech, which fights common sense accountability for its products, abdicating that responsibility to children and families.

For example, tech companies should be focused on eradicating child sexual abuse material (CSAM) from digital platforms. After all, each report of CSAM is a child who has been victimized by rape or assault. A  New York Times  investigation  called the proliferation of CSAM an “almost unfathomable” increase in criminality: from 600,000 images reported to NCMEC in 2008 to 60 million in 2018. That’s potentially 60 million crime scenes. (Further, reports increased 35 percent between 2020 and 2021). 

Yet CSAM exists because many tech platforms don’t think they need to report it; nor do they have any incentive to prevent or eliminate it. Why? Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – born in 1996 before social media existed – gives them near-blanket immunity from liability. Many tech companies will say that they have procedures in place to report CSAM to the authorities, but reporting standards vary widely.

A bipartisan bill, the EARN IT Act, would hold technology companies accountable if they knowingly facilitate the distribution of CSAM. In other words, EARN IT gives tech companies legal incentive to detect and delete — as well as to report — CSAM.

EARN IT would help address what is, disturbingly, a common experience for young users on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, and beyond: routine exposure to predatory targeting, grooming, sexual violence, prostitution/sex trafficking, hardcore pornography, and more. 

But use Google to search for any positive news about the EARN IT Act and you’ll come up empty. Big Tech does not like EARN IT because it would finally hold them accountable for protecting children.

Congress has led the way in exposing social media companies’ lack of care for children in hearings with executives from Facebook/Meta, Instagram, and TikTok. This is just the start.

Recognizing that Big Tech can and should do more to protect children, Congress is considering a number of proposals to ensure kids are protected from harm online.

The Kids Online Safety Act establishes a duty of care for commercial software applications and electronic services that are used, or likely to be used, by a minor. It mandates platforms to responsibly design products to ensure children are protected. The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act will strengthen protections for children and include minors up to age 16 against the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.

To be sure, we recognize that some tech companies like Apple, Google, and TikTok have responded to our concerns about child safety, gradually instituting more robust parental controls and other safety mechanisms. But parental controls are not enough. The burden of safety must be on the tech platforms.

These platforms place millions of kids in danger everyday and it is past time for technology companies to do more about it. Like millions of cars built without seat belts, traveling down roads with no streetlights or signage, tech companies have created platforms with very little safety infrastructures for minors. 

Children cannot confront these challenges alone. The responsibility for creating safe digital spaces must be spearheaded by the architects of this brave new world.

Dawn Hawkins is the CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the leading national non-partisan organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health harms of pornography. Twitter: @NCOSE

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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