For our “Be the Change” segment this month, we are featuring Thorn – an organization that is dedicated to eliminating child sex abuse from the internet.
I've invited the Lead of Marketing and Partnerships, Sarah Potts, to tell us more about this organization. We're also going to discuss why this deplorable situation for children is on the rise and a lot of it is here in the United States.
Andy Hill: Reports of child sex abuse material (CSAM) online has increased by 10,000% since 2004. Why is this happening?
Sarah Potts: One of the reasons it's happening is because a couple of companies have decided to start looking for this content on their platforms more actively. So, a percentage of that increase is the fact that a couple more companies have decided to actively look on their platforms instead of saying, “There's no way. There's no way this happens here.”
When they start to look they see, “Oh my gosh, it does happen here.” And then they report that to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) who is a critical partner in this work and houses all of that information and works really hard to reunify children with their families.
And then, the other reason it's happening is because when the internet changed all of our lives, it changed it by allowing us to connect. Right now, you and I are connecting. You're connecting with your followers. This is a really incredible thing you're doing.
But people who have different goals can also use the internet to connect for their own purposes. And some people are using that to connect around their shared interest in abusing children. And that explosion is the thing that we are trying to find ways to mitigate so we can find the children faster and create an online environment that is inhospitable to that kind of community building.
Where is the content (CSAM) coming from?
I think the problem is everywhere in some regard. We're really lucky to be working in 38 different countries with some incredible international law enforcement agents but that means that there is also a lot happening here in the U.S.
When we think about where the internet lives, where it legally lives. A lot of the companies, (Google right?), a lot of big companies are U.S. based companies. So when you think about what companies the content is being shared on then those are U.S. based organizations for the most part.
There are plenty of other places where content is being shared as well. And I think the important thing is that it doesn't know any boundaries. This abuse knows no boundary and it's in all of our communities and it's a really hard thing to know about and accept. But if we are able to look at the problem that we've created, we have the first step towards being able to address it and work on behalf of these kids.
What is Thorn doing to combat CSAM?
We're doing a lot of things. So Thorn's mission is to defend children from child sexual abuse by building technology. So, we're really focused on the ways that children need support defense protection and what technology can do to combat their abuse.
We're focused there because when we were founded about seven years ago by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore they asked as founders, they asked our CEO to go look out into the field and say, “Hey, what isn't being done? Where could we add value? How could we do something different? Are we even needed here?”
Because their hearts were so torn open after seeing a Dateline special about what was happening, I think in Cambodia. And they were really lucky enough to talk to some friends who said, “That's happening here too, look around, go get educated.” And this is one of my favorite things about the Thorn origin story is that the first thing that happened is our hearts were so broken by the situation and the first thing someone said to us was, “Go learn more. Go make sure you're doing the right thing, not just something.”
And that's really a part of who Thorn is, is to figure out what is the right thing to do and where can we specifically be valuable. And so that focus on technology is where we saw there being a gap.
There are a lot of things that are helping technology companies change the world. And there are a lot of reasons. It's really important that tech companies and law enforcement don't just text each other all day. There's a lot of privacy concerns in the world and so we're really excited that there are some separations between those organizations.
However, in the case of child protection, you need to have a really different conversation around how we're going to collaborate together to work on behalf of kids. And Thorn has the ability to sit in between international, national, local law enforcement, big companies, and then nonprofit partners like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
And so, Thorn can sit in between there and do a couple of things. We can build technology, build tools that people in the front lines can use to find kids faster. Two examples of that:
Spotlight is a tool that law enforcement in the U.S. and Canada use to help identify child victims of sex trafficking faster. That one is our oldest product. We're so proud of it. We're so excited that we're able to offer it for free to users.
And then, our second one is Safer. And Safer is a product that helps companies that host user-generated content, which is the industry term for anywhere you can upload a photo.
Anywhere you can upload a photo … our belief is that there's probably child sexual exploitation happening on that platform. And Safer is a product that helps companies look for that content, and remove it from their platform, and report it to the appropriate groups. So, we're really focused on keeping the internet safer for kids and then also finding the kids who are currently victims faster.
What can people do to support your organization?
Absolutely. I think a very obvious and always needed one is a donation. We are so thankful to all of our donors. When we have a community who's mobilized to support this work it not only allows us to do the work but we also love it.
We talk internally all the time when we can get new donors and often times donors will leave a little note for us about why they donated or why this was important to them. And if you're listening (reading :), and you decide to donate, first thank you, but second if you have a note leave it. It'll go around the whole company and we talk about it and it gives us so much energy so that while we're over here trying to dedicate our time and our lives to this work that other people see it and other people appreciate it.
It not only allows us to help the kids, but it really helps us. And that's wonderful.
And the other thing, you can raise awareness around the issue, start talking about it with your family, with your colleagues. It's a hard issue to talk about and we need to have more inroads so that when we have good news we can share it with everyone and they'll know what we're talking about.
As parents, how can we protect our children on the internet?
It is scary stuff. I think what we know about some of the worst of the worst abuse is very similar to what we already know about different types of family violence which is that oftentimes perpetrators already have access to children.
And so, one of the very common things is to continue to know the people in your children's lives. While there is an absolute danger of them meeting and connecting with someone online who you'll never know another problem is just making sure that people aren't able to interact with your children in a way that you're not comfortable with. And I think that's a very standard parenting tip. I'm not a parent, but we have a bunch of parents on staff. So, there's a lot of tried and true nature to that.
However, specifically on how people are interacting with kids digitally, we have a campaign called Stop Sextortion and you can go to Stop Sextortion and you can learn a little bit more about that.
But this is a different issue where children are meeting people online, making friends with people, and then that relationship ends up not being with a friend but with an adult who's looking to groom that child to create sexual content for them. It gets really complicated because the kids feel really embarrassed and they feel like they don't have anyone to turn to. They feel like if they tell anyone they'll get in trouble, that it will be their fault.
However your family wants to handle that specific problem, the concern that we hear over and over again from victims is that they didn't think that they could tell anyone. And that's really the scary part is if a kid gets trapped and is being abused by an adult and that abuser is telling them like, “If you tell anyone what's happening, I'll tell your dad.”
And then that starts to make you feel ashamed when you're the one being abused and you're a kid and your brain isn't developed enough yet to understand how to get out of that situation. So, what we try and encourage is parents to talk about their kids saying like, “You can tell me anything. I'll always be here for you no matter what. If anyone ever does this to you, it's not your fault and I love you.”
These sort of reinforcing positive messages before anything bad happens. We've seen be really valuable discussion starters and there are some tips and tricks for parents on the Stop Sextortion website.