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Pope Francis: “ethical algorithms” against online abuse

"Ethical algorithms” is the proposal of Pope Francis to prevent online abuse, to which children in particular are exposed. The aspects of greatest concern include a dramatic growth of pornography also among children. A balance must be found between privacy protection and the fight on crime

“To undertake an ethical development of algorithms, and in this way, to help create a new ethics for our time”: it’s the innovative proposal of the Pope for the digital world, contained in the final part of his address to participants in the Congress “Promoting child dignity. From concept to action” ongoing in the Vatican, organized in conjunction by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities. Francis called upon the  “large companies”, never mentioned by name yet underlying the entire speech, to put in place concrete initiatives such as verifying the age of their customers in order to prevent minors from accessing pornographic sites – the average age of first access to online pornography is currently eleven – and to prevent all forms of abuse. Privacy protection, cautioned the Pope, must not become a pretext to avoid combating veritable criminal activities. The final appeal is addressed to religious leaders, urged to “ban from the face of the earth violence and every form of abuse against children.”

A global movement. “The identification and elimination of illegal and harmful images from circulation on the net by the use of increasingly refined algorithms, represents a very significant area of research. Scientists and those working in the digital world should continue to promote such research, engaging in a noble competition to combat the wrongful use of newly available technology”, the Pope said in the context of applications of artificial intelligence. “There is a need to ensure that investors and managers remain accountable, so that the good of minors and society is not sacrificed to profit.” These efforts should emerge

“as a global movement associated with the deepest commitment of the human family and international institutions to protecting the dignity of minors and every human person.”

A long-term vision. “In recent decades, from painful and tragic experience – the Pope said referring to the episodes of child abuse – the Catholic Church has become profoundly aware of the gravity and effects of the sexual abuse of minors, the suffering it causes, and the urgent need to heal wounds, combat such crimes and establish effective means of prevention. For this reason, the Church senses the duty to approach these issues with a long-term vision.”

For the Pope the challenge before us is “to ensure that minors have safe access” to new technologies, while, “at the same time ensuring their healthy and serene development and protecting them from unacceptable criminal violence or grave harm to the integrity of their body and spirit.”

Countering digital pornography. “Tragically, the use of digital technology to organize, commission and engage in child abuse at a distance, cutting across national borders, is outstripping the efforts and resources of the institutions and security agencies charged with combating such abuse”, Bergoglio’s cry of alarm: “The spread of images of abuse or the exploitation of minors is increasing exponentially, involving ever more serious and violent forms of abuse and ever younger children.” In particular, there is a “dramatic growth of pornography in the digital world.” “A new alliance between all institutions and centres of education” is needed to combat this phenomenon along with the mobilization of the scientific community and specialized companies.

The protection of privacy and the fight on criminal activity. “A fitting balance must be found between the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and the interests of society, so as to ensure that digital media are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors”, is the Pope’s proposal with regard to privacy protection. Hence the appeal to companies that provide Internet services which “have long considered themselves mere suppliers of technological platforms, neither legally nor morally responsible for the way they are used.” “The potential of digital technology is enormous, yet the possible negative impact of its abuse in the area of human trafficking, the planning of terrorist activities, the spread of hatred and extremism, the manipulation of information and – we must emphasize – in the area of child abuse, is equally significant. Authorities must be able to act effectively, using appropriate legislative and executive measures that fully respect the rule of law and due process, in order to counter criminal activities that harm the life and dignity of minors.”

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