UK and allies agree new principles with tech firms around online child safety

A blueprint for keeping children safe on the internet, created by a collection of governments, has been unveiled and endorsed by major technology companies.

The UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have formally launched the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which detail actions tech companies should take to protect younger users on their platforms.

The pledges range from stopping existing and new child sex abuse material appearing on platforms to taking steps to stop the live streaming of abuse, and identifying and stopping grooming and predatory behaviour.

As the proposals were launched in the US, they were endorsed by tech giants including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, TikTok, Twitter and Snap.

The technology firms who have endorsed the scheme have said they will now promote and support them, as well as taking part in a collaboration between government and industry to help create a safer online environment.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “It is truly horrific that thousands of sick paedophiles are preying on vulnerable children from across the world.

“This scandal requires our global partners to work together, and these principles provide a blueprint for delivering just that.

“I want this landmark collaboration across borders and sectors to define a stronger, new, united approach.”

The Government is currently also working on new legislation around online harms, including placing a statutory duty of care on tech companies to keep their users safe, overseen by an independent regulator.

The voluntary principles set out by the collection of governments are seen as a way of clearly focusing global efforts to improve online safety, beyond legislation in specific countries.

Security minister James Brokenshire said: “We cannot allow children to fall victim to predators who lurk in the shadows of the web.

“Through global collaboration and with enhanced action from the five countries, law enforcement agencies and tech companies, we will ensure that children are protected online.”

WeProtect Global Alliance, a group comprised of 97 governments, 25 technology companies and 30 civil society organisations, has also said it will promote the new principles across the industry and support the initiative.

The announcement comes against a backdrop of growing concern about the safety of young people online.

According to figures from the NSPCC published earlier this year, around 90 online abuse crimes against children have been recorded every day since the Government introduced its online harms white paper last year.

Responding to the announcement of the voluntary principles, video platform TikTok said: “Protecting against the threat of online child sexual exploitation and abuse is an issue that requires a global response, including collaboration between governments and industry, and the sharing of skills and resources to support a safe online environment.

“The voluntary principles outline a high-level framework that can be consistently applied across sectors and services to respond to changing societal and offending behaviours – and reduce risks for users.

“This is one of our many efforts to protect children both online and off.

“Keeping children safe from online sexual exploitation and abuse is critically important and can only be achieved through cross-sector collaboration.”

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of online safety charity the Internet Watch Foundation, said: “The IWF assists companies by providing services that fit their business needs and helps them keep their services free from child sexual abuse material.

“These voluntary principles are a welcome step in ensuring that internet companies in the Five Eyes countries are truly doing all that they can to prevent the spread of child sexual abuse material online.

“When our member companies join the IWF, they make a voluntary commitment to do all that they can to keep their customers safe and remove this abhorrent content as quickly as possible.

“It is our hope that these principles will encourage more companies to follow the lead of our members and step up and do the right thing for victims of child sexual abuse.”

The National Crime Agency (NCA) also welcomed the new principles, calling them an “important milestone” in the fight against child abuse online.

Rob Jones, director of threat leadership at the NCA said the agency had seen an increase in the “scale, complexity and severity” of such content.

“To stop the pathway of escalation into severe offending, there must be zero tolerance of the presence of child sexual abuse on industry platforms, with industry reinforcing this at every level to raise the bar to offending,” he said.

“The NCA also welcomes parallel work to progress online harms legislation, which will place a statutory duty of care on tech companies to keep their users safe online, overseen by an independent regulator.”

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