Editorial: Tech titans must be made to answer for child exploitation in Australia too

Editorial
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, addresses the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, addresses the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Credit: ANNA ROSE LAYDEN/NYT

There was a remarkable moment during January’s US congressional hearing examining allegations of online harms to children.

Dozens of parents had crowded into the room to watch the heads of big tech companies — including Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg — face a grilling over their platforms’ role in perpetuating the global child exploitation crisis.

In their hands they held photographs of their children — victims of this very crisis. Children who had died after facing online bullying or sexual exploitation.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Dead children are part of the cost of doing business when you’re the CEO of a big tech firm.

But it’s a cost that’s a lot easier to bear if you don’t have to look into their faces, or the faces of their angry, grief-stricken parents.

The confrontation even forced a moment of human emotion from the notoriously detached Zuckerberg.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” Zuckerberg told the parents.

“It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”

A tech billionaire humbled. Forced to listen as he was told of the enormous toll of human misery his product had caused. That’s a rare thing.

A family member laughs in reaction to a comment by Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, among families holding portraits of victims of online abuse during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2024. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)
A family member laughs in reaction to a comment by Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, among families holding portraits of victims of online abuse. Credit: JASON ANDREW/NYT

It shows there is power in making these companies and their CEOs directly answerable for the despair their platforms enable and perpetuate.

Much like online trolls themselves, they’re not so brave in person.

Now Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay wants these tech giants to face the music here in Australia too.

Because at the moment, they’re simply not doing enough to stem the tide of abuse.

Last financial year, the Australian Federal Police received more than 40,000 reports about online child exploitation material.

In 2022, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children — a global reporting system for the exploitation of children — received 32 million reports of child sexual exploitation and abuse. More than 21 million and 5 million reports were about material on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Instagram respectively.

As Ms Finlay says, it’s easy for the stories of these children to be lost behind those vast numbers.

“When you see those statistics, presented as numbers and files and data, it’s so easy to forget that there are real victims underpinning that and they are innocent children,” she said.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 31: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, is sworn in to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," in Dirksen building on Wednesday, January 31, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, is sworn in to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled ‘Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.’ Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

“Behind a number of like 32 million reports are individual children who are having to deal with this, and that’s just heart breaking.”

These companies need to understand that they’re not above the laws of any country they choose to operate in, including Australia.

Their bosses need to be made to confront the reality that their products are doing immeasurable harm to vulnerable children all across the world.

Dead or otherwise irrevocably damaged children aren’t just another input to be measured against profit.

Shame might be the most powerful weapon we have in making them understand that.

Responsibility for the editorial comment is taken by The Nightly Editor-in-Chief Anthony De Ceglie.

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 15-04-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 15 April 202415 April 2024

Justice Lee finds Lehrmann ‘hell-bent on having sex’ with Higgins and ‘didn’t care if she knew what was going on’