Goodale urges internet giants to do more to combat child abuse online

Internet giants need to be better, faster and more open when it comes to fighting child abuse online, or else governments could make them pay for its harmful aftermath, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday.

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, makes an announcement regarding the protection of children from online sexual exploitation during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Aug 6, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

“If human harm is done, if a child is terrorized for the rest of their life because of what happened to them on the internet, if there are other damages and costs, then maybe the platform that made that possible should bear the financial consequences,” Goodale told a news conference in Ottawa.

The threat came as Goodale unveiled the details of an expanded national strategy aimed at combating the exploitation of children online, a cause to which the Liberal government has committed about $22 million over three years.

That includes about $2.1 million aimed at engaging with online companies to make sure their platforms develop the technical ability to recognize and remove child pornography and related content as quickly as possible, or even prevent it from being posted in the first place.

Other goals include having larger companies help smaller firms who want to tackle the problem but may not have enough money or expertise to do it, as well as increasing transparency about the algorithms companies use to attract users.

“The public has a right to know how their information is being used, shared and potentially abused, so the algorithms need to be as transparent as possible so that the public knows what’s happening with … their own information, or the information that they’re exposed to,” Goodale said.

The announcement followed a meeting last month between Goodale and his counterparts from the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, collectively known as the Five Eyes intelligence group.

Major internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, were also at the meeting and agreed to a set of rules the governments proposed to remove child pornography from the internet more quickly.

A spokesman for Goodale confirmed it was made clear to companies at the meeting that the governments were willing to legislate consequences for not going far enough.

Facebook did not specifically address the warning from Goodale when asked about it Tuesday, but issued a statement saying keeping children safe on its platform is a top priority.

“In addition to using technology to proactively detect grooming and prevent child sexual exploitation on our platform, we work with child protection experts, including specialist law enforcement teams, to keep young people safe,” the statement said.

Spokespeople for Google and Microsoft were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

“This is a race where the course is always getting longer and more complicated and advancing into brand new areas that hadn’t been anticipated five years ago or a year ago or even a week ago,” Goodale said.

He said efforts to combat child exploitation online will always be a work in progress for governments, and must include constant reminders to the tech giants to not slow their efforts.

“Dealing with these horrible threats to children and the abuse of children is something where we can never relax because technology will never relax.”

The majority of the money, first unveiled in March’s federal budget, is going to provincial and municipal police forces.

About $15 million is going to local police internet child exploitation units, as well as to upgrade the work done by prosecutors relying on their evidence.

The remaining $4.9 million will go towards prevention measures, including public awareness of the problem.

The Conservatives were quick to note how the announcement came in the middle of the summer, weeks before the expected start of a federal election campaign, despite the money itself having been disclosed in the federal budget earlier this year.

“This is nothing but a re−announcement in the dying days of a scandal−plagued government that offers nothing to victims of violent crime,” Conservative MP Pierre Paul−Hus, the critic for public safety, said in a statement.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising to bring in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for anyone convicted of a serious sexual offence against a child victim, Paul−Hus noted.

At his news conference, Goodale said the timing of the announcement follows consultations on how the money would best be spent.

“We’ve had the opportunity to consult with our Five Eyes and G7 allies, as well as the NGOs that are active in this field within Canada, to get the benefit of all this advice and to put together a thoughtful package.”

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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press