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Meta must do more to protect children - Minister

Published: 24 May 2023 at 16:00

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat

Tom Tugendhat criticises Facebook’s parent company at the PIER23 conference

Security Minister the Rt Hon Tom Tugendhat MBE VR MP has spoken out against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and warned that the Government will be shining a light on the company’s plans to introduce end-to-end encryption.

Speaking on the first day of the annual conference of the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), which is a research institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), he described Facebook and Instagram as a “one stop shop” for online predators targeting children.

The PIER23 conference is focusing on ‘Tackling Online Harms – A Whole System Approach’, and features experts and industry leaders from sectors including social media, technology, policing and public protection discussing how to better protect children online. 

The Security Minister said:

“It is simply not acceptable for tech executives to make vast profits from their youngest users, only to pass the buck when it comes to protecting them from the dangers that their own platforms create.  

“To predators, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are truly a one stop shop. Without leaving Meta’s ecosystem they can choose their target, start a conversation with them and transfer that conversation onto a private messaging service. And that’s exactly what we see happening in their thousands.”

Speaking about Meta’s decision to introduce end-to-end encryption later this year, the Security Minister said:

“Unless they build in robust safety measures, that poses a significant risk to child safety. Let me be absolutely clear, privacy matters. The UK government is in favour of protecting online communications. We rely on that protection for online banking and for the ability to do business and to trade around the world. But it is possible to offer your customers the privacy that they expect while also maintaining the technical capabilities needed to keep young people safe online. 

“Meta are choosing not to, many others have already chosen the same path. Let’s be clear as to the consequences of this decision. This is not simply a choice like others. It is a decision, a conscious decision by Facebook and Instagram under Meta that has so far provided 80% of NCMEC [the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in the United States] referrals, meaning 20 million cases of suspected child abuse a year. It is a conscious decision to reduce that from 20 million to zero. 

“Faced with an epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse Meta are choosing to ignore it, and in doing so are allowing predators to operate with impunity. That is an extraordinary moral choice.

“Some will have heard the words I have used today as being particularly critical of one company. They are right to hear them. They are absolutely right that I am speaking about Meta specifically and Mark Zuckerberg’s choices particularly. These are his choices, these are our children. This is a decision we must make extremely clear, but he is not alone in making these decisions, other companies have done too. 

“We will shortly be launching a campaign. A campaign to tell parents the truth of Meta’s choices and what they mean for the safety of their children. And a campaign that encourages tech firms to take responsibility and to do the right thing. 

“We will not stop until we are satisfied that Meta and others are serious about finding a solution, and until they have strong safety systems in place to protect children. I hope that, like me, this isn’t a fight that you’re prepared to lose, and I hope you will join us. Our voices will be much louder if we speak together, and we will be able to persuade many more people.”

Speaking about the Minister’s input, Chair of PIER Simon Bailey said:

“It is extremely encouraging to hear these powerful words from the Minister, and a clear commitment from Government to taking a firm stance against the actions of tech giants such as Meta, which are impossible to condone.  

“Tech companies have given predators access to children all over the globe, and they have a responsibility to do whatever they can to make children safe.  End-to-end encryption is a clear step away from this, allowing them to move away from any responsibility or culpability for what is taking place on their own platforms.

“As a research institute, we use data and evidence to inform policing, public protection organisations and the tech sector on many of the issues connected to this horrific crime, and we are wholeheartedly behind this public commitment by Government to demand that tech companies do more.”

PIER is an applied research institute, which for the last five years has worked with law enforcement and key stakeholders to improve the policing and public protection response to the online threat of child sexual abuse.

This year’s conference has attracted over 1,250 delegates in person and online, and is believed to be the biggest event of its kind ever held in the UK. Other speakers on the first day included Dr Fred Langford, Director of Trust and Safety at Ofcom, Susie Hargreaves OBE, CEO of Internet Watch Foundation, Keily Blair, Chief Strategy & Operations Officer at OnlyFans, and David Gray OBE, National Online CSE Co-ordinator for the Home Office / National Police Chiefs’ Council.