Pope Francis: Tech Companies Have a Responsibility to Protect Children

Vatican meeting included the participation of executives from Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Paramount Pictures.

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VATICAN CITY — In a speech to the head of major global tech companies, Pope Francis said Thursday that protecting children from evils such as trafficking and pornography requires a recognition of the limits of online freedom.

“A crucial aspect of the problem” of child safety online “concerns the tension — which ultimately becomes a conflict — between the idea of the digital world as a realm of unlimited freedom of expression and communication and the need for a responsible use of technologies and consequently a recognition of their limits,” the Pope said.

“A fitting balance must be found between the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and the interests of society,” he continued, “so as to ensure that digital media are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors.”

The Pope underlined the huge potential of digital technology, but also noted its negative impact when abused for “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.”

He noted that many children use cellphones, and current protections against access to pornography are inadequate; studies show, he said, that the average age of first encountering pornography is 11 — and it is lowering.

“This is in no way acceptable,” he stressed.

Pope Francis spoke in the Vatican’s apostolic palace to participants in a Nov. 14-15 Vatican meeting on promoting child dignity online.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the meeting included the participation of high-level executives from Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Paramount Pictures.

The Pope said companies have long considered themselves to be mere “suppliers” of technological platforms, without having a legal or moral responsibility for how they are used.

But freedom and protection of privacy must be balanced with concern for the common good, he urged.

Leading technology-based companies can no longer consider themselves unaccountable for the services they provide their customers, the Pope said.

“I make an urgent appeal to them to assume their responsibility toward minors, their integrity and their future,” he said.

To protect minors in the digital world requires the “full involvement of companies in this sector,” he added. It also requires the companies’ “full awareness of the moral and social repercussions of their management and functioning.”

“Such companies are bound not only to respect the law, but also to be concerned with the direction taken by the technological and social developments which they produce and promote, since such developments are far ahead of the laws that would seek to regulate them,” he said.

The Vatican meeting, which continued through Friday, also has an interreligious focus, with speeches by Orthodox leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Lutheran Queen Silvia of Sweden, and Muslim Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

Vatican City State’s new president of the tribunal Giuseppe Pignatone and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin were also scheduled to speak.

The meeting is a follow-up to the 2017 Vatican and the 2018 Abu Dhabi conferences on digital child dignity.