The Pope has issued a major challenge to the Big Five tech companies. Will they rise to it?

Pope Francis (Getty)

Don't deny your responsibility for the way your platforms are used, Francis tell firms

The ball is now in the tech companies’ court. That is one way to summarise the two-day conference at the Vatican last week with religious leaders, NGOs, policy makers and high-level tech representatives to discuss the protection of children in the digital world.

Pope Francis strongly addressed the executives of the Big Five – Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google – present at the papal audience last Thursday, demanding that they remove child pornography from the web and prevent children from accessing explicit material online.

The Holy Father said that the protection of privacy through increasingly sophisticated forms of message encryption shouldn’t be an excuse to stop any form of control, even if tech companies claim privacy as the basis of customer trust and the pillar of their business.

Action to stop the diffusion of child pornography – which largely takes place via encrypted messages – is urgent, the Pope said, especially when “such developments are far ahead of the laws that would seek to regulate them”.

He advocated a balance “between the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and the interests of society, so as to ensure that digital media are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors”.

He also specified two urgent measures: authorities must be able to act effectively, and large companies must no longer “consider themselves completely unaccountable vis-à-vis the services they provide for their customers”.

Companies, he said, are not mere suppliers of technological platforms, but legally and morally responsible for the way they are used, including every form of abuse and crime against children.

The numbers and extent of child abuse on the internet allow it to be qualified as a pandemic. Microsoft estimates that approximately 270,000 images of child sexual abuse are uploaded every single day. The New York Times recently reported that “last year, tech companies reported over 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (USA)”.

Moreover, the phenomenon goes beyond national borders. The Human Dignity Foundation reported this year that, although more than 65 per cent of child sexual abuse imagery is hosted in Europe, the production of certain types of material – such as live streaming – is concentrated in hub countries like the Philippines.