Google Takes Major Steps to Block Online Images of Child Abuse

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt details the company's latest initiatives to fight online images of child abuse. The move comes in the wake of arrests in Canada.


Google is bolstering its fight to block online images of child abuse by fine-tuning its search engine to prevent such links from appearing in searches, while bringing in more than 200 people to find even more ways to put an end to this kind of exploitation.

That's the message from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who wrote a Nov. 17 article that was published by The (London) Daily Mail.

One of the keys to the success of the company's latest efforts, wrote Schmidt, is the continual fine-tuning of Google Search. "While no algorithm is perfect—and Google cannot prevent [criminals from] adding new images to the Web—these changes have cleaned up the results for over 100,000 queries that might be related to the … abuse of kids," he wrote. "As important, we will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global."

Another part of the latest moves to fight child abuse images is that on-screen warnings are now being displayed to users when they might conduct searches for these images using some 13,000 query terms, wrote Schmidt. The warnings come from Google and from other agencies that are battling the problem, makes clear that the practice is illegal and offers advice on where to get help, he wrote.

Because there is no simple way to block child abuse images online, suspected images must be reviewed by Google personnel who can then give illegal images a "unique digital fingerprint," wrote Schmidt. "This enables our computers to identify those pictures whenever they appear on our systems. And Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for developing and sharing its picture-detection technology."

Engineers at Google's YouTube online video unit have created a technology to identify child abuse videos on that service as well as [abusers'] move to video distribution of the illegal content, wrote Schmidt. "We're already testing it at Google, and in the New Year we hope to make it available to other Internet companies and child safety organizations."

In addition, Google will now contribute computing expertise to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in Great Britain and to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to help them in the fight against child abuse images, wrote Schmidt. Google will also now fund internships for other engineers inside those groups.

"This will help the IWF and NCMEC stay one step ahead," he wrote. The "abuse of children is a global challenge, and success depends on everyone working together—law enforcement, Internet companies and charities."

Schmidt wrote that he was moved to take these additional actions in light of a major sting involving child abuse images in Canada last week, when 348 people were arrested and 386 young children were rescued "in one of the largest investigations involving child abuse images ever seen. It defies belief that anyone would … abuse children, especially teachers and doctors entrusted with their care."

Google and Microsoft and other Internet companies have been working with law-enforcement agencies for years to fight child abuse images online, he wrote, but the battles continue. "And while society will never wholly eliminate such depravity, we should do everything in our power to protect children from harm," he wrote.

"We actively remove child … abuse imagery from our services and immediately report abuse to the authorities," Schmidt wrote. "This evidence is regularly used to prosecute and convict criminals."

Peter Barron, Google's director of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told eWEEK in an email reply that the company's initiatives are important to global efforts to stop the sharing of child abuse images online.

“The … abuse of children ruins young lives," Barron told eWEEK. "It’s why we proactively remove these awful images from our services—and report offenders to the authorities. But the government is right that our industry can do more. So we’ve developed new technology to detect and remove videos of abuse, we are showing warnings against search terms related to child … abuse, and we are fine-tuning our search engine to prevent this material appearing in our results. We hope this will make a difference in the fight against this terrible crime.”