Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn, on setting big goals, TED and The Audacious Project

At Thorn, our vision has always been clear, but the path has not. At every step, we have learned and encountered new challenges that have focused our efforts and strengthened our resolve. Our constant has been our insistence on setting goals and building solutions that keep the children we serve at the center of everything we do.

With support from TED and The Audacious Project, we are announcing one of our biggest goals to date: the elimination of child sexual abuse material from the internet.

While child sexual abuse is a human issue, technology has dramatically altered its severity and prevalence over the past three decades. In the late 1980’s, child sexual abuse material (commonly known as child pornography, a term that does not accurately reflect the violence it depicts) was nearly eliminated. A combination of new laws and increased prosecutions had made it simply too risky to trade through the mail.

And then came the internet, and the market exploded.

The amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in circulation today is massive and growing. Last year, in the U.S. alone, more than 45 million images and videos of suspected child sexual abuse were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). That is more than double the amount reported the year prior.

The majority of the content features children younger than 12 and includes extreme acts of sexual violence. Meanwhile, online communities dedicated to this abuse serve to normalize behaviors and desensitize offenders to the physical and psychological damages inflicted on the children being exploited.

Even when a child is removed from an abuse situation, their abuse lives online forever – distributed across these communities. They are re-victimized with every viewing, which makes their full recovery incredibly difficult.

Today, child sexual abuse material likely exists on every platform that accepts user-generated content. Consider every digital platform where you can upload a photo or video, and you can conceive of just how widespread this issue is. As abuse material has become more widely available, we have continued to see that exposure to this content can be deeply harmful and normalize behaviors that fuel the content’s virality. This is an emerging public health crisis that is carving lasting effects across our society.

Our response to this epidemic must be redesigned for the digital age.

At Thorn, that’s what we’re doing. We build the technology to empower the critical set of people on the front lines — law enforcement, NGOs and industry — with the tools they need to ultimately eliminate child sexual abuse from the internet.

We are incredibly grateful for support from TED and The Audacious Project, which will accelerate our ability to build the technology needed to achieve our goals. But this goal will take ongoing commitments, just like our initial work has. So while we aren’t there yet, we have a clear path to where we are headed.

Our plan to eliminate child sexual abuse material centers around four key pillars.

1. Equip the front lines with the tools and systems they need.

Thorn’s tools are already at work across all 50 U.S. states and 38 countries. We will continue to hone the products that have enabled law enforcement to identify over 10,000 child victims to date, and reduced investigation time by more than 65%.

Our newest product, Safer, is specifically targeted towards small to medium size companies in the tech sector who likely do not have the resources or expertise to address the presence of abuse materials on their own platforms. Safer allows tech companies to identify, remove, and report child sexual abuse material from their platforms quickly and easily, stopping the viral spread of this content.

2. Drive deliberate, effective data collaboration to accelerate victim identification.

Globally, law enforcement and tech companies that encounter abuse content translate each image and video into a unique string of numbers- known as a hash — so that these files can be used more effectively for investigations and to remove content from platforms. The problem is that hundreds of millions of these hashes sit in siloed databases around the world. All of this information must be connected in order to enabled law enforcement to find kids faster, and tech companies to halt the spread of new material and take down old material across the open web.

3. Build out our existing product teams, and invest in research and development.

Thorn houses the only team of engineers in the world solely dedicated to building products that fight child sexual abuse online. As new technologies emerge, bad actors seeking to co-opt them for abuse will soon follow. We need to invest in on-going research, development and innovation in order to stay ahead of a constantly evolving landscape and ensure we will never be so far behind abuser tactics again.

4. Invest in our critical global partnerships with law enforcement, industry and NGOs.

Thorn could never do this alone. We bring new technologies and a singular focus to a robust ecosystem working to defend children from sexual abuse. Everything we build is informed by learnings from our partners in the survivor community, child protection NGOs, tech industry thought leaders, and law enforcement. We will invest in tools and programs that elevate the whole field by improving our technical capacity to address these crimes at scale.

This will not be easy — but it is possible.

We have already built the foundation. It is at work around the world — stopping abuse and removing horrific content.

Now, as a public, we need to mobilize the will to face this issue head on.
 When we don’t talk about it, abuse and injustice thrive. Removing taboos and starting an honest conversation around the realities of child sexual abuse will change the lives of thousands of children, and defend millions more from exploitation.

As we have been reflecting on this moment, we’ve realized that while this issue is one of the darkest, the people who work on behalf of these kids are some of the brightest lights. And we need you here, too.

Join us. Help us have the hard conversations. Together we are unstoppable, and we won’t stop until every child can simply be a kid.