There are more children on the internet than ever before. Globally, one in three children is active on the internet and, in the UK, this rises to 97% of children between five and fifteen years old. The pandemic has intensified the need for children to be online for schoolwork and to connect with friends. However at the same time, it has accelerated the spread of harmful online content that jeopardises their safety. This is evidenced by an unprecedented number of reports of child sexual exploitation online, with a 70% increase in reports of online grooming to NSPCC (U.K.) from 2018 to 2021, and a 98% increase in reports of child sexual exploitation to NCMEC (U.S.). Children are increasingly vulnerable to a range of online harms, including child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA). This may further contribute to mental, psychological and physical harm, including suicide & self-harm and eating disorders. Child safety is an urgent challenge for governments and communities around the world, requiring collective action to ensure children are being adequately safeguarded online, whilst also respecting their agency.
Child safety is increasingly in the spotlight from both regulatory and technology leaders, as illustrated by the progress of the Online Safety Bill, the passing of the EU’s Digital Services Act and the growth of the Safety Tech sector. However, there are still great challenges to be tackled in the sector, as highlighted during the WeProtect Global Alliance Summit last week. Building on PUBLIC’s research and projects in child safety, in this blog post we discuss a number of primary challenges in child safety online today, and outline how PUBLIC is taking action to confront them.
What are the primary challenges facing Safety Tech players in child safety today?
Whilst the Safety Tech sector is evolving rapidly, so too are the technical challenges and in turn, the barriers that prevent key actors from working collaboratively.
PUBLIC has identified three challenges for technology solutions tackling child safety online:
Firstly, online engagement has evolved from text-based newsfeeds to new communication channels, including live streaming, video-conferencing, and image-based communications. While improving platform functionality, these new channels offer new ways for perpetrators to access victims and to disseminate child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Our research with Nominet on countering online harms highlights that live streaming represents a unique risk, as its temporary nature makes it difficult to target and remove. Furthermore, the proliferation of platforms and channels has contributed to a rise in self-generated imagery. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reports a 374% increase in self-generated material from pre-pandemic levels, with this kind of content now accounting for roughly three quarters of all content their organisation reviews. These novel platforms and communication dynamics highlight the importance of Safety Tech product owners in identifying and delivering new functionality to ensure children using their solutions remain protected online.
Our research into internet infrastructure has broadly focused on encryption, as part of the Safety Tech Challenge Fund (STCF). End-to-end encryption is widely accepted as the best standard for protecting user privacy, built into platforms including Whatsapp and Signal. Whilst privacy is respected, this can leave vulnerable communities open to predatory behaviours as they are siloed from safeguarding technologies. Around 90% of children aged eight to seventeen use services that offer end-to-end encryption. This has led to technology firms finding themselves caught between respecting user privacy and protecting vulnerable communities, particularly underage children.
The pace of feature development and introduction of evolving technologies on online platforms means the child safety community must perform horizon scanning to prepare for a rapidly changing threat environment. We are still witnessing the ongoing development of new online spaces, for example the emergence of virtual reality and the metaverse. With safety concerns already emerging in these environments, it will be critical to future-proof current solutions to ensure children continue to be safeguarded online.
The child safety sector also faces challenges with collaboration, definition, and standardisation. Safeguarding children requires a diverse set of actors to work together to address complex challenges. When knowledge and capability sharing is not a primary aim, organisations risk unintentionally replicating work, or developing solutions that cannot be deployed across the sector.
PUBLIC’s user research into methodologies for better data sharing in the Safety Tech sector, supporting DCMS, has validated the problem of poor collaboration limiting the development of shared definitions and standards. In turn, divergence in taxonomies and definitions of online harms can lead to vital miscommunication, poor scalability and even limited investment. A lack of this shared language directly hinders the development of standards for risk assessments, reporting functions and data labelling. While the UK government has taken initial steps to address this challenge, greater consistency in definitions and standards across the ecosystem will be a critical need as Safety Tech providers continue to scale and support larger communities of children online.
How does PUBLIC work with Safety Tech to address these challenges?
PUBLIC is working to address these challenges through our projects and partnerships. From a technical perspective, we have worked with government and Safety Tech providers to address novel platform and communication dynamics within specific internet infrastructures by developing future-proofing solutions to protect children online. A key example of this was the Safety Tech Challenge Fund (STCF), a partnership between the UK government and PUBLIC to drive the development of innovative technologies to keep children safe in end-to-end encrypted environments, while maintaining privacy. This partnership supported a variety of technology solutions available in the market today, ranging from age assurance technologies to AI-nudity blocking, hash-matching, and metadata analysis.
We aim to engage with the full lifecycle of technology solutions - from designing to building and monitoring - to ensure children are being kept safe online. We are committed to researching and exploring novel platform and communication dynamics to make sure we are most effectively advising stakeholders and guiding solution development. Privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) represent a key area of PUBLIC’s convening and advisory work to further facilitate government data sharing for the development of privacy-preserving innovative online safety solutions, such as trusted research environments (TREs) or differential privacy solutions. We recognise the importance of consistency in solution development and are supporting the UK government in testing methodologies to improve data sharing in Safety Tech, while also exploring practical online safety standards and processes to best monitor and evaluate solutions. As flagged during the WeProtect Global Alliance Summit panel discussion on Industry Transparency, there is a fundamental need to incorporate principles of transparency, trust, and accountability. PUBLIC is committed to this as we work to future-proof solutions we support. Ultimately in addressing these technical challenges, we hope to support more Safety Tech providers to transform the public sector and advance child safety online.
However, PUBLIC cannot address the challenges from evolving technologies alone. Our convening function is at the heart of our company and projects, and we actively promote cross-stakeholder collaboration across the breadth of our work in the child safety sector, highlighted by our flagship GovTech Summit and GovStart initiative. PUBLIC works with Safety Tech providers, civil society groups, regulators, and subject matter experts, to drive technical innovation, capability sharing, standards, and specific expertise in this problem area. We prioritise collaboration as we believe shared understandings of problem areas will enable the development of highly targeted solutions which can effectively tackle the technological challenges as outlined above and enable social impact. In doing so, we hope to foster a culture of collaboration across the online child safety community more broadly, and enable partnerships to best future-proof solutions and support children in the long-term.
Work with us
PUBLIC’s Privacy, Security and Online Safety team provides strategic advice and critical research as well as supporting digital development to accelerate Safety Tech solutions and convene. Our ambition is to build a safer future for citizens by continuing to normalise conversations in this space, support the growth and awareness of Safety Tech, and inform the product to policy loop. PUBLIC recognises the global nature of this problem and is increasingly part of global solutions.
Work with us to build a safer future for citizens. If you are engaged in child safety internationally, get in touch with email@example.com to collaborate with us and find out more.
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