Congress must act against online child exploitation, U.S. bishops say

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Congress must act to help prevent the exposure of children to online pornography and to combat online exploitation and abuse of children and other vulnerable people, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said Wednesday.

“Online child exploitation threatens the safety and well-being of our young people and destroys families and communities,” four leading bishops of the USCCB said in a June 7 letter to members of Congress. “The ability of a child to grow into adulthood in peace and security is both a human right and a demand of the common good: The dignity of the human person requires protections for our young people so that they may flourish as they mature.”

Signers of the letter were Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Protection of Children and Young People; Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of Boston, who chairs the Committee on Communications; and Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.

The bishops’ letter alluded to Catholic failures to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy in the U.S., failures that have only been brought to light in the last two decades.

“As pastors, we have seen the destructive effects of the reprehensible offenses of child exploitation firsthand,” they said. “And as leaders of an institution that, for many years, failed to meet its responsibility to protect all children, we know all too well the consequences of a culture that fails to give adequate attention to the problem of child sexual exploitation.”

The bishops voiced concern that research indicates social media use can negatively affect young people’s mental health. They stressed the need for young people to have the opportunity to “mature to adulthood in safety and security” and to avoid pornography.

“Being exposed to pornography can be traumatic for children and youth,” the bishops said. “Seeing it steals their innocence and gives them a distorted image of sexuality, relationships, and men and women, which may then affect their behavior, including addiction to pornography. Because children lack mature understanding of appropriate behavior, pornography makes them more susceptible to victimization by sexual abuse and maltreatment.”

A majority of young people have viewed pornography, accidentally or intentionally, by the age of 13.

The bishops did not comment on any particular legislation. However, the REPORT Act passed the Senate Judicial Committee on June 1. The legislation would require websites and social media platforms to report crimes that violate federal trafficking and enticement of children laws. It would increase fines for companies that knowingly and wilfully fail to report child sexual abuse material (CSAM), according to a June 1 statement from the office of U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia.

The bishops’ letter called for safeguards to ensure that pornography “causes minimum harm.” Such safeguards include prosecution of those who coerce others to produce pornographic materials and giving victims the power to remove unlawfully created pornography from internet platforms.

The bishops lamented that children and young people are coerced into the production of pornography, which is “illegal, abusive, and a form of human trafficking because of a child’s inability to consent.”

Despite parents’ efforts, the bishops said, the internet can be a dangerous place for children. 

There is an “immediate need for effective safeguards” to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. Legislation should help parents protect their children online and ensure they have “the tools necessary to monitor their children’s online activity.”

The bishops’ letter noted the dangers of abuse, extortion, and blackmail online. This includes the coercion of sexual favors or money accompanied by threats to release sexual images or money.

“Legislation should ensure that social media platforms do not permit abuse by predators or undermine the rights of parents to protect their children from harm,” they said.

Researchers have sought to determine whether and to what extent popular social media sites help spread illegal pornography and CSAM.

Instagram, owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, has many user accounts that seek to purchase sexual content depicting underage persons. Investigators and researchers with the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst analyzed these accounts and how Instagram treats them.

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They found sexually explicit hashtags and pornographic accounts purporting to be run by children or minors themselves. Some Instagram accounts appear to allow other users to commission custom works of illegal pornography or to meet children in person. The social media platform algorithm appears to promote the accounts through recommendation systems that identify shared interests among users, researchers and investigators found.

“Child exploitation is a horrific crime,” the company said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re continuously investigating ways to actively defend against this behavior.”

Promoting underage sexual content violates both Meta policy and federal law. Meta said it has an internal task force dedicated to policing this content. In the past two years, it said, it has removed 27 networks for distributors of pedophilic material and has blocked thousands of hashtags that sexualize children. The company is also seeking to prevent algorithms and recommendation systems from helping to connect adults with possible interests in CSAM.

Alex Stamos, who was chief security officer at Meta through 2018 and is now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told the Wall Street Journal that a sustained effort is needed to combat the material.

“That a team of three academics with limited access could find such a huge network should set off alarms at Meta,” he said, voicing hope that the company reinvests in human investigators.

Other researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, based on their analysis of 100,000 Twitter posts from March to May, have reported that the social media platform appears to have failed to block dozens of known images of child pornography, despite the availability of screening software, databases, and other best practices to combat CSAM.

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