Shareholders push telecom firms to tackle online child sexual abuse

Online child sexual abuse is a booming international business and religious congregations holding stocks in major telecom firms are stepping up their advocacy to thwart it.

May 25, 2019

By Dennis Sadowski
Online child sexual abuse is a booming international business and religious congregations holding stocks in major telecom firms are stepping up their advocacy to thwart it.

Led by Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS), the effort involves a widening campaign designed to push leading telecoms to take strong action to block explicit images from their growing communication networks and information platforms.

“These telecom companies are trying to attract these younger and younger audiences, but we believe they are not investing a commensurate amount of time in online safety,” said Tracey Rembert, director of Catholic responsible investing at CBIS.

Verizon is among the high-profile companies being engaged. CBIS, joined by the Maryknoll Sisters, the Sisters of St Dominic of Caldwell, New Jersey, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia and Proxy Impact, gained a vote on a shareholder resolution addressing online risks faced by children durin Verizon’s annual meeting May 2 in Orlando, Florida.
Proxy Impact, based in Oakland, California, assists private shareholders in advocacy work to promote sustainable and responsible business practices.

The resolution — calling for a report by March 2020 on the potential sexual exploitation of children through the company’s products and services — gained 33.7 per cent approval from shareholders.

While it was far from the majority needed for passage, such a high level of support for a first-time resolution is unusual in the corporate world.

Rembert was pleased, but not satisfied, with the result, especially given that she believes it’s the first time that shareholders anywhere tried to force a telecom company into action to confront online abuse.

“I’ve tried to engage with (Verizon) for over a year and every time I spoke with someone, I didn’t have strong confidence in what they were saying, or I didn’t have the right person who could give me the answer (about their practices),” she said.

Online child sexual abuse can take many forms, including children being exposed to inappropriate content; the soliciting of kids to send inappropriate photos of themselves through social media, pornographic videos and live streaming; and the manipulation and distribution of normal family photos of children stolen from computers and cellphones.

The ease with which such images are distributed is what concerns Rembert, who has been trying to convince telecom firms to respond to investor concerns for two years. Perpetrators are using increasingly sophisticated means, including encryption, to avoid detection, she said.

Rembert undertook the campaign effort after a poll of other investors revealed that human trafficking and online child abuse were the two highest ranked concerns.
“(Society is), almost universally, against child pornography and child sexual abuse,” Rembert said.

“There’s a firm moral line that crosses all different stripes of society and, because of that, there is not a lot of gray area if a company is linked to child sexual abuse online.”

While the moral concerns are the shareholders’ greatest concern, there’s also a financial reason for the effort. Rembert said that companies face high risks to their reputation and financial bottom line — and thus the value of a shareholder’s portfolio — if it’s determined that a telecom firm is not doing what’s possible to protect children.

Online child sexual abuse is a global industry, fuelled by the widening access by children to mobile devices and cellphones on every continent. No estimates are available on the size of the industry, but Interpol and other law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed in trying to track the amount of material circulated through online platforms.

Rembert described the meeting as “good ... but we wanted a stronger commitment about what they are doing.”

Verizon said in a statement emailed May 15 that it “is proud of the leadership role we play in combating the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online.”

Maryknoll’s involvement stems from the congregation’s human trafficking prevention efforts around the world. Rowan said Maryknoll Sisters are educating people about necessary safety precautions as the internet becomes available in villages and outlying areas.

“At what point does the demand for these children reach into Zimbabwe and Cambodia?” she asked.

Sr Daly, who has spent more than 40 years in shareholder advocacy on dozens of issues from weapons manufacturing to human rights, said it’s the responsibility of the telecom companies to set high standards in safeguarding children. --CNS

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