Justice News

Attorney General William P. Barr Announces the Launch of Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
Washington, DC
United States
Thursday, March 5, 2020

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon.  I am pleased to be joined here today by Acting Secretary Wolf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, distinguished colleagues from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, and representatives from leading tech companies, to announce a very important initiative: Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.

Last summer, I traveled to London for the Five Country Ministerial Digital Industry Roundtable.  There, our five nations met with senior representatives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Roblox, Snapchat, and Twitter.  We agreed that a more robust global response to online child sexual abuse was necessary to ensure that all children across the globe are protected, and that there is no safe space online for offenders to operate.  Further, we committed to developing a set of voluntary principles to ensure online platforms and services have the systems they need to combat online child sexual exploitation.  As a result of that meeting and much diligent work since then, today, we are collectively launching the 11 Voluntary Principles.  I am happy that our hard work has come to fruition with today’s event.

The 11 Voluntary Principles establish a baseline framework for companies that provide online services to deter use of the Internet as a tool for sexually exploiting and abusing children.  The six technology companies involved in this initiative have now publicly endorsed the Principles, and I commend them for their leadership.

The sexual exploitation and abuse of children is one of the most horrendous crimes affecting the most vulnerable members of society.  Unfortunately, this has emerged as a massive problem not only in the real world, but also in the virtual one.  Last year alone, more than 16.8 million CyberTips of suspected child sexual abuse material offenses were made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), involving children as young as infants.  

Earlier today at the White House, we heard from members of the Phoenix 11, which is the group responsible for the powerful video you just watched.  Phoenix 11 is an organization of survivors whose child sexual abuse was recorded and, in the majority of cases, distributed online.  I commend these brave survivors for raising the profile of this issue.  Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to them for their courage in coming forward and telling their stories.  They have given a voice to victims who have been silenced.  They inspire us to take action, and we are thankful for their fearless and unrelenting efforts.

No child should ever have to endure the unspeakable pain and suffering of sexual exploitation and abuse.  Sadly, however, technological change over the past few decades has amplified the scope and harm caused by these crimes.

First, the borderless nature of the Internet has made these crimes transnational.  A global problem requires a global solution.  We are, therefore, collaborating with our international counterparts, particularly our close rule-of-law allies, like those represented in this room.

Second, technology has made it easier to produce, conceal, and distribute child sexual abuse materials.  For example, over the last decade, the Department of Justice has seen a 160-percent increase in cases involving the production of videos and images of children who were sexually exploited and abused.  This increase is due in part to the ready accessibility of smart phones, which can be used to both produce images and videos and distribute them online.

Third, with digital content, sexual-abuse imagery can be preserved online for much longer periods of time and disseminated more broadly.  Victims incur not only the initial harm of abuse, but are victimized again and again when those images are recirculated.  For example, sexual abuse imagery of one particular victim has been found in almost 21,500 separate U.S. investigations over the last 20 years.  As we heard this morning from the courageous survivors in the Phoenix 11, knowing that their child sexual abuse material is still online is debilitating, preventing some from even being able to use the Internet.  Victims should not be forced to live in such fear.

Fourth, the Internet affords child predators more places to hide.  Predators often use anonymous or false personas, even in the most innocuous of settings, like online children’s games.  They also communicate using virtually unbreakable encryption.  A suspicious individual interacting with children at a real-world arcade is easier to detect than a predator lurking in the digital world.  As the survivors at our roundtable this morning implored, predators’ supposed privacy interests should not outweigh our children’s privacy and security.  There is too much at stake.

While technology is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution.  This is why I am heartened to be here today with my partners from the Five Country Ministerial and with representatives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Roblox, Snapchat, and Twitter to announce these Voluntary Principles, and to encourage other tech companies to join this initiative.

This is the first time that our five nations have collaborated in this way with technology companies to protect children against online child sexual exploitation and abuse.  The Voluntary Principles that we are announcing today have already been implemented informally by some leaders in the industry.  Now formalized, they will serve as a baseline for the rest of industry to use, and to build upon, as they assess their current vulnerabilities and design new products and services. 

While these companies are leaders, they represent just part of the online world.  There is a massive disparity among companies in their child protection efforts.  In 2019, three companies — Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — accounted for 97.5 percent of the CyberTips submitted to NCMEC.  And let us give credit where it is due: Facebook alone submitted 94 percent of last year’s CyberTips — almost 16 million in total. 

We hope that our actions today will encourage others in the tech industry to consider these Voluntary Principles as they make decisions about their own services.  Company leaders and employees should ask questions like:

  • Will children be attracted to a new service, and if so, how can risks of predatory behavior against them be mitigated?
  • Have technologies been developed that — with a high degree of accuracy, and with few, if any, false positives — detect exploitation that is occurring and stop it?
  • Do disappearing messages or certain encryption tools appropriately balance the value of privacy against the risk of safe havens for exploitation?

The Voluntary Principles are an important first step, but we can and must do more.  The department, for one, is prioritizing combating child sexual exploitation and abuse in our prosecution efforts.  We are also addressing child exploitation in our efforts on lawful access and in analyzing the impact of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on incentives for platforms to address such crimes and the availability of civil remedies to the victims.

Government, however, cannot do it alone.  Given the size and scope of this problem, we each need to do our part.  As governments, as industry leaders, as parents, as grandparents, as a global community, we all have a duty — indeed, a moral imperative — to protect our children from these abhorrent abuses in the physical world and the online world.

The Voluntary Principles show that international actors and the public and private sectors are eager to take important first steps to address this vital issue.  It is our sincere hope that other leaders throughout the tech industry will commit to these principles as well.  Nothing less than the safety and security of our children is at stake. 

Thank you.

Updated March 5, 2020