Are Search Engines Doing Enough To Deter Child Abuse?

    July 30, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Are search engines like Google and Bing doing enough to combat child exploitation and those seeking out images of it? That’s a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds this week as Microsoft has said that it will include new pop-ups aiming to deter those seeking out such content on Bing. Google, on the other hand, has reportedly elected not to take this path, suggesting that its methods for combatting the problem work better.

Do you think Bing is doing the right thing? Should Google follow suit? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech about the Internet and pornography, calling on search engines to do more to keep children safe.

“Government needs to do more,” Cameron said. “We need to give CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) and the police all the powers they need to keep pace with the changing nature of the internet.”

He then announced that starting next year, they’ll link up existing databases across police forces to form one large database full of illegal images of children.

“The internet service providers and the search engine companies have a vital role to play and we’ve already reached a number of important agreements with them,” said Cameron, adding that a new UK-US taskforce is being formed “to lead a global alliance with the big players in the industry” to eliminate child exploitation images.

Cameron said that in Britain, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have already been engaged on a major campaign to deter people who are searching for child abuse images. He wouldn’t go into detail about the campaign, he said, because it could “undermine its effectiveness”. He did say that it is “robust, “hard-hitting,” and a “serious deterrent” to people looking for these images.

Currently, reported images are immediately added to a list, and are blocked by search engines. But Cameron doesn’t think it’s good enough for the search engines to wait until images are reported. He said they’re “not doing enough to take responsibility,” and even said they’re “denying responsibility”.

Cameron refuses the argument that search engines shouldn’t be involved in finding out where illegal images are “because the search engines are just the pipe that delivers the images, and that holding them responsible would be a bit like holding the Post Office responsible for sending illegal objects in anonymous packages.”

“That analogy isn’t really right, because the search engine doesn’t just deliver the material that people see, it helps to identify it,” Cameron said.

“Companies like Google make their living out of trawling and categorising content on the web, so that in a few key strokes you can find what you’re looking for out of unimaginable amounts of information,” he said. “That’s what they do. They then sell advertising space to companies based on your search patterns. So if I go back to the Post Office analogy, it would be like the Post Office helping someone to identify and then order the illegal material in the first place and then sending it on to them, in which case the Post Office would be held responsible for their actions.”

“So quite simply we need the search engines to step up to the plate on this issue,” he added. “We need a situation where you cannot have people searching for child abuse images and being aided in doing so. If people do try and search for these things, they are not only blocked, but there are clear and simple signs warning them that what they are trying to do is illegal, and where there is much more accountability on the part of the search engines to help find these sites and block them.”

He said the UK government has already insisted that warning pages are placed wherever child abuse sites have been identified and taken down.

Cameron said, “There are some searches which are so abhorrent and where there could be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent of the searcher – terms that I can’t say today in front of you with the television cameras here, but you can imagine – where it’s absolutely obvious the person at the keyboard is looking for revolting child abuse images. In these cases, there should be no search results returned at all. Put simply, there needs to be a list of terms – a blacklist – which offer up no direct search returns.”

“So I have a very clear message for Google, Bing, Yahoo! and the rest: you have a duty to act on this, and it is a moral duty,” he added. “I simply don’t accept the argument that some of these companies have used to say that these searches should be allowed because of freedom of speech.”

He then asked search engines to commit to stop offering results on a blacklist of search terms that would be given by the CEOP.

“There’s one further message I have for the search engines. If there are technical obstacles to acting on this, don’t just stand by and say nothing can be done, use your great brains to overcome them,” he said. “You’re the people who’ve worked out how to map almost every inch of the earth from space. You’ve designed algorithms to make sense of vast quantities of information. You’re the people who take pride in doing what they say can’t be done.”

Cameron then suggested the search companies hold hackathons to tackle child safety.

You can read the full transcript of Cameron’s speech here.

Peter Davies, chief executive of the CEOP, had this to say, following Cameron’s speech: “Anything which helps stop the distribution of this material or deters those who feed the market by accessing it online can only be a good thing and, working with the world’s leading technology companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook, we’re ready to hear their ideas on other ways to stop illegal child abuse material being viewed online, and to support their work.”

“But let’s not be blinded to the fact that our work is not just about stopping people from accessing the images that already exist on the internet. We need to continue our work on stopping them from being produced and distributed in the first place by catching child sex offenders and safeguarding children to stop them suffering more horrendous abuse,” Davies added.

According to the BBC, Bing has become the first search engine to introduce pop-up warnings for people in the UK seeking out child abuse images. Yahoo, the report says, is considering doing something similar. Google, however, does not intend to, the report says. BBC News shares statements from both Microsoft and Google on the matter:

Microsoft said the notifications aimed “to stop those who may be drifting towards trying to find illegal child abuse content on the web via search engines”.

A spokesman said: “This is in addition to Microsoft’s existing and longstanding policy of removing any verified links to illegal content of this sort from Bing as quickly as possible.”

“Microsoft has been, and remains, a strong proponent of proactive action in reasonable and scalable ways by the technology industry in the fight against technology-facilitated child exploitation. We have teams dedicated globally to abuse reporting on our services and the development of new innovations to combat child exploitation more broadly.”

Interestingly, just a few months ago, we had to report that Bing was actually suggesting people search for some pretty questionable things, like “sex games online for children,” “sex games for kids,” “sex games for kids in bed,” “sex kids movies, “sex kids free,” “sex kids site,” “sex kids picture,” and “sex children to children movie” among others. That is, these terms were appearing in the autosuggest search box. Even just typing “sex” into Bing would include a suggestion for “sex games online for children”. These types of suggestions did not occur on Google.

Bing suggestions

The whole thing was brought to our attention via a reddit thread. The Bing suggestions were even showing up in Facebook’s Graph Search, thanks to the partnership between Facebook and Bing.

Facebook Graph Search

When asked about all of this, a Microsoft spokesperson simply told us, “We’re reviewing the guidelines for search suggestions related to this type of query.”

Since then (and that was in April), Bing’s suggestions do appear to have significantly gotten better, at least for the queries referenced in our article. The Facebook issue appears to have been resolved as a result of Bing’s efforts.

Here’s the quote from the Google spokesperson shared by BBC News:

“We use purpose-built technology and work with child safety organisations to find, remove and report it, because we never want this material to appear in our search results. We are working with experts on effective ways to deter anyone tempted to look for this sickening material.”

Additionally, Yahoo says it is working with the CEOP and others.

Some are criticizing Google’s approach. According to the Daily Mail, “Google has infuriated child safety campaigners and experts by refusing to take part [in the alert system Bing is using], because it believes its own methods in tackling the problem are more effective.”

The piece also quotes John Carr, a government adviser on online child safety, as saying, “‘What Bing and Yahoo! are doing is brilliant. If they show it can be done effectively, it will be very difficult for Google to continue to refuse as well.”

I guess we’ll see.

So far, Google hasn’t had a whole lot to say about the matter. You would think a post on its Europe Policy blog would be in order. This is the place Google typically responds to issues raised by governments in Europe.

Do you think the search engines are doing enough to deter criminals looking for child abuse images? What would be the most effective way to combat this issue? Let us know what you think in the comments.

  • Jolie

    What if images posted online could be tagged if there were children in them period – and not searchable. Parents are trying desperately to keep their kids’ pictures from being on facebook, but they slip through. Hoping someone smart can help protect the children as image searches are more and more available…

  • Jolie

    That reads a bit that parent’s aren’t posting their kids’ pics on facebook, parents are too liberal posting children’s pictures. But there ARE more vigilant parents that ARE hoping their kids’ pics aren’t slipping online when others post group shots, etc. Its just way too easy for children to be found online – right down to location and their habits.

  • http://www.wssmedia.com Chris Weller

    What I find confusing is that the search engines can derank websites quite easily and have advanced methods within their algorithm to detect even the slightest methods of spammy SEO methods.

    Surly it’s just a case of getting the geeks at google to create a new method – or advance and existing method that indicates keywords within content or links to sites that indicate what the websites intent is, then simply derank them so they are not online anymore?

    We all know about updates re panda and penguine, why not concentrate on an update that is directly related to child porn and other disgraceful websites, run the new updats across a number of months and target the main offenders, then roll it out to the less offenders.

    I also think that the guverment needs to do more about sentencing sickos that provide this type of thing but first and formost Google has to take the lead. Anyone experienced in SEO knows that google can find ways to prevent this type of thing from happening.

  • http://computerrepairessex.com Roger

    None of the search engines will ever be able to police the internet as they should. The only way I see parents protecting their children is to use a product like Netgenie that the parents control what the child can do on the internet and what sites that they can or cannot go on according to the age of the child. I think this is a very important issue as young children use such things as face book and other site that are age restricted how will the search engines stop children falsifying there age to gain entry to these sites, Pray tell me???

  • http://brandredresume.com Lawyer James

    Depending on the type of internet connection you have at home – If the kids access the internet through a router connection, you can block certain things from accessing the http://router.

  • http://Alyasa.mywapblog.com Alyasa

    Ok ok ok

  • Tom

    C’mon, get real!

    No pictures of children on the Internet. No mention of children on the Internet. Let’s also ban all forums and discussion groups about taking care of babies and about parenting while we are at it.

    I know it is a very popular in the USA to trade liberties for imagined safety, but this is getting stupid.

    Whatever happens on the Internet is a reflection of what happens in the real world. Abused children do not magically appear on jpeg images by themselves, they are real life children. In real life, abused children go to kindergarten or school and are in contact with “normal” adults; adults who have the opportunity to notice if something seems to be off in the behavior of the child.

    Instead of discussing how to take away freedom from everybody on the Internet, we should be discussing how those adults who are professionally working with children can be equipped to spot when something is off. This is a very serious matter, so we should also discuss how to protect both teachers and parents from “false positives” so neither risk getting their lives ruined by trying to protect the children.

    The whole Internet discussion is aimed at treating the symptoms and is a distraction from a needed discussion on how to solve or reduce the problem in the real world!

    Big Brother is already snooping in our mail and listening in on Skype conversations to protect everybody from terrorists. Next step is that everybody must submit a copy of all family photos to Big Brother to protect children from abuse. Then we will have to clearly identify our trash bags, so Big Brother can go through our trash to protect us from ourselves!

    • Jill

      I agree with you when it comes to parents and others being educated on child abuse. I would agree with you about the providers not doing more than they are now, but you obviously don’t know how much time you can get if you happen to get any of these pictures on your computer in the US that are 15-25 years old. Whether you want them or not, you can easily get 20 years in federal prison for pictures that were in a cache or downloaded with legal files. Most of the time, these pictures lead to 4 or 5 times longer sentences than the actual abusers.

      So, no, the internet companies and the search engines are NOT doing enough to keep the child porn, out of people’s hands! THere are hashtags that can be detected and removed. The internet providers do that with movies that people download!

      • Tom

        Sorry, this is paranoid and cracy.

        I bet you would not be able to find child porn on the Internet even if you searched for it!

        Even if you go to porn sites offering free images or videos, the risk that you will get child porn on your PC is almost non-existant.

        1) Child porn perverts are despicable, but not stupid. They know they are doing something highly illegal, so they will not be out in the open; probably they are in forums and on mailing lists that are closed from the public in general. If you know how to become a member of such a forum or where to sign up to such a mailing list, then you probably rightly deserve whatever jail time is sent your way.

        2) You can safely assume that videos and pictures named something like “teen girl gets stiffie for the first time” are legal. For some reason, some adults get off thinking about young girls (but not necessarily children), so if you are a girl of legal age with a very young/childish appearance then you can make big money as a “teen” porn star. Authorities can just as easily access public sites with these pictures and videos as you can and all the producers know that it is very easy to track them (especially if they publish free material as teasers for their paid site), so I can guarantee you that they have the paper work in order (documenting that their girls are of legal age and that they consent to publishing the pictures/videos).

        3) Even in the USA, it is not customary that the police randomly search you home and sniff through the cache on you computer unless they have a court order. The police will not get a court order to search your PC for child porn unless they have strong suspicion – see point 1. Unless you live in a religious dictatorship, there is no thought police that will charge you with corrupted moral if you visit porn sites on the internet.

        There is no reason to get paranoid and blame the Internet. If you go to a porn site and download something without being careful, the worst that can happen is that your computer might get a virus – I guess that would be categorized as an eSTD 😉

        • Ivan McVeigh

          Pictures of child pornography do appear on regular porn sites without any special skills or secret peep to peer sharing they can and are viewed.

          People bang on about their freedom of use etc – get real there is and never has been any freedom to view pornography whether ‘normal’ or illegal.

  • Ivan McVeigh

    I welcome the latest attempts by government to controll access to Internet pornography however I would however like to lobby for an additional element which could be introduced in the same package.

    I suffered an addiction to Internet pornography for over ten years. I am now cured/in recovery, following extensive one to one private therapy. I have set out below as succinctly as possible the cause and effect of this addiction followed by my suggestion.

    The cause of Internet pornography addiction:-

    • At least 70% of men view pornography on a regular basis, 30% of women also admit to viewing pornography.
    • Some people can view pornography without it having an effect on them, but for others because of their background a problem starts to develop. (E.g. 13% of the women who view Internet pornography believe their use of Internet pornography is problematic.) This is just the same as the fact that some people can drink alcohol, take drugs or gamble without a problem while others become addicted.
    • The viewer begins by looking at ‘normal’ legal Internet pornography; this creates a rush in their body caused by increased levels of dopamine.
    • As they get used to looking at this material the level of excitement reduces but their body demands the same high levels of dopamine and the only way to achieve this is by looking at more extreme material.
    • For some the only way to achieve the high the body is demanding is found in illegal material.
    • You can clearly see that this is the same path followed by those addicted to alcohol and drugs.

    The above is a very brief explanation, however the path is well understood, well researched and many academic papers have been produced on the subject.

    The effect of Internet pornography addiction:-

    • Users begin by exploring Internet pornography as a recreational activity but for some this quickly gets out of control
    • Users find that they are spending more and more time on line viewing Internet pornography with many people spending between 15 and 30 hours a week looking at porn.
    • Users realise that they are now seeking out more extreme forms of pornography.
    • Users realise that they are spending less time with their family or friends and that their work is suffering.
    • Users spend much of their time thinking about when they will next be able to view Internet pornography.
    • Users find that they are unable to sleep and during these periods of wakefulness pornographic images will be racing through their minds.
    • The user will then try to stop viewing Internet pornography; they will generally revert to their old behaviour within hours or days.
    • The user will then try to limit the time they spend on line looking at Internet pornography, but this approach never succeeds and what was planned as a 15 minute session ends up as hours spent trawling through pornography.
    • The only future the Internet porn addict sees for themselves is hours spent in a darkened room viewing pornography. They will not even really want to see the images they are viewing; they will see themselves as perverts, the low life of society.
    • For some their use will bring them into contact with the law, they will lose their job, their home, their family.
    • It is not possible for them to cure themselves and they need professional help. It should be noted that unlike smoking or alcohol or drugs, help for this addiction is not provided by the NHS.

    I know all of the above from experience.

    What the government and Internet industry need to do:-

    The papagraph below sets out one simple step which I, as a recovering addict, believe must happen, followed by suggestions which I believe would be very desirable to achieve.

    The government steps on splash pages regarding illegal material and referrals to the charity ‘Stop it Now’ are good and must be included but this needs to be the second line of defence.

    What needs to happen is that when anyone searches for pornography, or enters web addresses related to pornography a warning splash page must appear stating that pornography can be addictive and referring users to a web site offering advice and help. (Just like the drinkaware or gambleaware campaigns or the warnings on tobacco.) This simple step alone may be enough to stop some people progressing down the path set out above. (As no such web site exists I am presently creating such a resource at my expense.)

    I would also like to see:-
    • A charge made by Internet service providers for access to pornography. My home TV service is supplied by Virgin Media. I pay for this TV service, however if I wish to view the adult channels they provide I have to make an additional payment of £6.50 per night which will appear on my bill, enter a PIN number and the service does not start until 10pm, and this is to view legal and what most would consider to be ‘tame’ pornography. If I wish to view pornography on my computer through the service provided by Virgin Media I do not have to pay anything extra and will be able be to view the most extreme and illegal material in the world 24/7. A little odd to say the least!
    • Time limits. When someone who has registered under the proposed scheme to allow pornography to be accessed in their home wants to view adult material, they should have to enter a pin number, just the same as you would do with a TV service. They should have to re-enter this number every hour so reminding them every hour of the time they are spending viewing porn.
    • Annual renewals. The scheme announced by government whereby people make a positive step to allow pornography to be viewed in their home should have to be renewed on an annual basis.

    This is a difficult issue and I have only been able to offer limited information and suggestions.

  • http://www.insegment.com Anna Miller

    The most important element is how search engines decide whether the search result is relevant and not harmful to others. Mointoring the auto search options and removing reported images is very helpful. Pop-ups that alert users about illegal information or webpages may not be as important as actually increasing the reporting of illegal images and finding, fining and shutting down websites that are engaged in such illegal activites.

  • Cal

    I think that google do not take enough steps at all, earlier I was searching for pornography with a Very normal term for porn (which I will not write for obvious reasons that I do not want others to find the images) and clicked on the VERY first link that appeared, happened to contain child abuse images (disgusting!!!) so I have reported that to the IWF for investigation, I wish there were ways to instantly deal with blocking these sites from popping up on any search (viz. emailing google directly to remove it immediately) however there seems not to be, I will from today take a more active interest in removing these sites as I am truly scarred by what I have just seen… Ugh