Google, Microsoft announce steps to block child porn. Will they succeed? (+video)

Google and Microsoft will reprogram their search engines so that 100,000 potentially relevant terms will no longer yield links to illegal child porn images. Details for how this will roll out in the US are not clear yet.

By , Staff writer

Google and Microsoft unveiled measures to block online searches for child sex abuse images on Monday as part of a bid by British authorities to crackdown on Internet pedophiles. The companies said as many as 100,000 search terms will now fail to produce results and trigger warnings that child abuse imagery is illegal while offering advice on where to get help. The world's two largest search engine operators' move was a rare display of unity ahead of an Internet safety summit on Monday, hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron.

After months of pressure from the British government, tech rivals Google and Microsoft have announced they are working together to try to push child pornography off the public Internet. The two companies, which account for 95 percent of all online searches, will reprogram their search engines so that 100,000 terms potentially related to the sexual abuse of children will no longer yield links to illegal images.

"We're agreed that child sexual imagery is a case apart; it's illegal everywhere in the world, there's a consensus on that. It's absolutely right that we identify this stuff, we remove it, and we report it to the authorities," Peter Barron, a Google communications director, told the BBC. The filters will take effect immediately in Britain and roll out in more than 150 languages over the next six months.

The details of how and when the system will roll out in the United States are unclear, but the algorithm changes are already in place, an industry source says.

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“The sexual abuse of children ruins young lives. It’s why we proactively remove these awful images from our services – and report offenders to the authorities," said Mr. Barron in a statement released by Google.

While Barron was careful to make a distinction between child sexual imagery and other online content that's inherently abusive, some free-speech advocates see the crackdown as being at the top of a slippery slope toward a government-controlled Internet – especially since it comes on the heels of Edward Snowden's revelations that the British and US governments have been tapping these same companies for user information for at least six years in the name of criminal and security investigations.

Such curbs on pornography "could eventually rob Britain of the moral authority to denounce government-imposed Internet filtration in countries such as China," The Washington Post wrote in a Sept. 28 article. "Perhaps more than any other Western nation, critics say, Britain has become a test case for how and whether to more deeply police Internet images and social media in free societies."

British Prime Minister David Cameron placed himself at the helm of an anti-pornography crusade in July, in response to the brutal assault and slaying of two young girls in separate cases. Two British men who were known to have used child porn were convicted of the crimes.

But Mr. Cameron's campaign goes beyond child sexual imagery. Starting next year, British households will have to choose to opt in if they want their Internet providers to continue giving them access to any pornography. Cameron has also announced plans to criminalize the possession of porn images that depict rape, simulated or not.

When the prime minister's campaign began, The Washington Post pointed to examples of countries where child-protection legislation had opened doors to widespread Internet censorship.

"Take Russia, for example," the Post's Andrea Peterson wrote. "Last year, President Vladimir Putin signed legislation allowing a nation-wide register of banned Web sites declared harmful to Russia’s youth. This 'child protection' legislation opened the door for the online bans on political speech by opponents of the Putin regime. It also allowed for the nationwide roll out of a sophisticated surveillance technology called deep packet inspection that has proven to be a cost effective way for autocratic regimes to track online behavior."

"Obviously," Peterson continued, "Britain is a liberal democracy while Russia and China are more autocratic regimes. But before you dismiss the comparison, consider that British intelligence agencies are reportedly considering installing DPI capable “blackboxes” on [Internet service provider] servers to monitor web traffic."

The plan announced by Google and Microsoft, while cracking down on illegal content, also includes an effort to keep constructive information about child pornography available. When users type in any of the 100,000 flagged queries, they will be offered links to counseling services and academic papers, along with a message that child pornography is illegal.

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, on Monday talked about the challenges inherent in identifying child pornography.

"There's no quick technical fix when it comes to detecting child sexual abuse imagery," he wrote in a Daily Mail op-ed. "This is because computers can't reliably distinguish between innocent pictures of kids at bathtime and genuine abuse. So we always need to have a person review the images." 

But some child-protection activists are skeptical that these changes will make a difference.

Jim Gamble, former head of Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, told "BBC Breakfast" that he didn't think they would help protect children. "[Pedophiles] don't go on to Google to search for images. They go on to the dark corners of the Internet on peer-to-peer websites," he said.

A better solution, Mr. Gamble added, would be to redirect the costs incurred by Google and Microsoft to hire child-protection experts and coordinators to hunt down online predators.

In fact, alongside the tech companies' announcement Monday, Cameron also announced a collaboration between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's newly formed National Crime Agency, which has just hired 4,500 specialists to crack those illegal peer-to-peer networks. An FBI/NCA joint operation already damaged confidence in the anonymity of the so-called dark Web last month, reports Britain's Channel 4 news, when the two agencies targeted the underground drug marketplace known as the Silk Road .

“We are driving people out of the public Internet, which is a good thing,” Claire Perry, Cameron's adviser on preventing the sexualization of children, told the BBC. “People can’t find these images, so they are privately going into the deep Internet, and that is where we need to be.”

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