Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Pope Francis demands more action from big tech firms to protect children

Catholic leader speaks of concerns over impact of pornography on young minds at UAE-backed summit attended by Sheikh Saif bin Zayed

Pope Francis has called on big internet companies to do more to protect children from abuse and online pornography at a Vatican conference hosted by the UAE.

In his address to the Congress on Promoting Digital Child Dignity, the 82-year-old said he was not persuaded by arguments, put forward by some large online firms, that they offered only ‘platforms’ for sharing content and were therefore not responsible for how they are used.

He also said there is a need to find a “fitting balance” between freedom of expression online and the interests of society, to ensure that digital media channels “are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors.”

The event was addressed by Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, who said the exploitation and abuse of children had become “a particular source of concern for the future of humanity”.

Although Pope Francis did not mention any company by name, the summit was attended by representatives of firms including Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google.

While acknowledging that the internet had brought opportunities for young people, for example in education, he said that security agencies were struggling to keep up with the sharing of child abuse online.

He also raised concerns of long-term damage to children as a result of being exposed to online pornography at a young age.

“Reliable studies tell us that the average age of first access to pornography is currently eleven, and tends to keep lowering,” the Catholic leader said. “This is in no way acceptable.

“The majority of scientific studies have highlighted the profound impact of pornography on the thinking and behaviour of children.

“It will surely have lifelong effects on them, in the form of grave addiction, violent behaviour and deeply troubled emotional and sexual relationships.”

Pope Francis meeting participants in the international congress on "Promoting Digital Child Dignity ". (Vatican Media)
Pope Francis meeting participants in the international congress on "Promoting Digital Child Dignity ". (Vatican Media)

In comments targeted at big digital media companies, he said: “It is now clear that they cannot consider themselves completely unaccountable vis-à-vis the services they provide for their customers.

“So I make an urgent appeal to them to assume their responsibility towards minors, their integrity and their future. It will not be possible to guarantee the safety of minors in the digital world without the full involvement of companies in this sector and without a full awareness of the moral and social repercussions of their management and functioning.

“Such companies are bound not only to respect the law, but also to be concerned with the direction taken by the technological and social developments which they produce and promote, since such developments are far ahead of the laws that would seek to regulate them.”

The summit is the latest in a series of events, backed by the UAE, aimed at addressing the issue of child safety in the digital age. A major summit was held in Abu Dhabi last year about the problem, following the Child Dignity in the Digital World congress, held in Rome in October 2017.

In his comments on Thursday, Pope Francis praised positive measures taken by some governments, such as requiring internet providers to implement age-verification checks. However, he said far more needed to be done by companies.

“There is a need to ensure that investors and managers remain accountable, so that the good of minors and society is not sacrificed to profit,” he said.

Sheikh Saif bin Zayed directs his comments to the Pope at the Vatican conference. WAM
Sheikh Saif bin Zayed directs his comments to the Pope at the Vatican conference. WAM

“We have seen how society has grown more sensitive to the areas of environmental care and respect for the dignity of labour.

“A similar concern for the effective protection of minors and the fight against pornography should become increasingly felt in the finance and the economy of the digital world. The safe and sound growth of our young is a noble goal worth pursuing; it has far greater value than mere economic profit gained at the risk of harming young people.”

The Pope’s appearance at the summit jointly hosted by the UAE follows his historic visit to Abu Dhabi earlier this year.

Sheikh Saif made reference the visit in his remarks. The interfaith conference was also attended by Dr Ahmad Al Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif.

"The people of the UAE welcomed His Holiness Pope Francis with joy and happiness last February during his landmark historical visit to the UAE, the first to the region, to an Arab and Muslim country that diligently endeavours to foster peaceful coexistence, and spread tolerance and love," Sheikh Saif said.

"What unites us as believers is far greater than what divides us. All religious denominations around the world condemn evil and call for cooperation, good deeds and respect for life."

During his trip Sheikh Saif met Queen Silvia of Sweden, a long-time activist for children's rights, and the Italian interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese.

Reem Abdullah Al Falasi, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, also addressed the Vatican conference.

“We still need greater international efforts to protect the world's children," she said. "New challenges and threats to the rights of the world's children have emerged, and the need for protection in the digital world is one of the most prominent of these threats and perhaps the most difficult to deal with, because, in the digital world, risks and abuses are hidden from the public.”

Updated: November 16, 2019 02:42 PM

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