Child Abuse: Powered by Zoom

Trigger warning; child abuse, rape

The massive rise in popularity of the video conferencing software Zoom is evident through the jump from 10 million daily users at the end of December 2019, to over 200 million by march 2020.[1] But this immense user growth during a worldwide isolation effort has come with downsides, and although Zoom CEO and founder Eric Yuan had addressed their response to a number of security and privacy issues experienced over the past months[2], the issues of indecent content not being filtered, and more importantly of child abuse occurring on the platform still remain, and need to be addressed.

Intended as an enterprise technology tool for business meetings, Zoom’s shift towards a more social and open platform during the Covid-19 outbreak has understandably resulted in the company not being fully prepared to handle some of the problems it is currently facing, and as stated for the Times by Jules Polonetsky, the chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum ‘with much broader adoption, abuse and misuse will follow.’[3] Issues including ‘zoom-bombing’ have been a massive point of concern for many users, with instances of popular Zoom calls, such as the WFH Happy Hour and a children’s online class being invaded by trolls who broadcast disturbing pornographic and violent content to everyone on the call[4],[5]. To compound an already disgusting practice, the nature of public Zoom calls makes it incredibly difficult to police such activity as blocked users simply log in under a new user and repeat the process.

While Zoom has published guidelines on how to limit zoom-bombing, the desire for calls to be open to the public and to have social events run by only a few people means that hosts checking each individual user, or blocking all audio and video of those that join the call is not always feasible, and can limit the enjoyment of everyone trying to stay connected while participating in social distancing. Furthermore, tech companies don’t moderate or detect any indecent content on live streams, and in fact struggle to do so on ordinary videos and photographs uploaded to their sites, meaning when illegal and grotesque content is shown on a platform like Zoom, there is no way to stop it from being seen unless the user is blocked, or the stream video call is shut down. While it is easy for some to laugh off a practical joke or even move past seeing a pornographic image during a business call or school class, child abuse does occur on Zoom, and it is never a laughing matter. Live-streaming software is not moderated by any large company, and a recent New York Times article demonstrates just how horrific some cases can be, detailing a 2015 case that saw a six-year old boy being raped while over a dozen other men watched, commented and cheered over the Zoom conference call.[6] This heinous act led the federal prosecutor on the case to describe Zoom as the “Netflix of pornography[7][8]. More recently, a Californian man has been sentenced to more than 16 years in federal prison for downloading hundreds of child abuse videos. Federal agents in an undercover investigation found the man entering online “Zoom rooms” known to display child sexual abuse material and downloading the content[9]. The above shows how rampant misuse of these platforms is not being effectively addressed by companies, an especially disturbing thought considering the huge growth in use over the past months.

“The Netflix of pornography” — Federal Prosecutor

[Note that in line with the Internet Watch Foundation, we do not view this as child pornography, but explicit child abuse.]

The current isolation felt by everyone during this pandemic is an unfortunate necessity to protect our health and wellbeing, but staying in touch with loved ones, friends, and attending classes online is also incredibly important. The excellent platform Zoom has created certainly allows for social interaction to continue without physical proximity, but until Zoom can reign in the issues of ‘zoom-bombing’ and child abuse happening on the software, it can never reach its full potential to keep people of all ages connected and safe, and is still be contributing to the spread of child abuse. Highlighted by Ainsley Harris in a Fast Company article about the rise of Zoom, child abuse and exploitation are not new issues in the tech world[10], with all social media platforms having a myriad of issues surrounding moderation and child abuse content. As more and more apps and sites aim to fill gaps in the socially connected world, comprehensive policy change at a governmental level is necessary to make the impact needed to protect children, and without policies that hold these companies accountable for what they publish, the amount of child abuse online will continue to grow as access to social media and interactive platforms does.

Sources [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Note that in line with the Internet Watch Foundation, we do not view this as child pornography, but explicit child abuse [8] Austin Berry — Federal Prosecutor. Quote taken from [9] [10]

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