Google and Microsoft's Bing have agreed to step up their efforts to prevent users from accidentally or deliberately accessing child abuse images, following discussions with the UK government at Downing Street on Monday.
New measures – which will be conducted in conjunction with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) – also include sharing technology that automatically recognises child abuse images.
Specific search terms will disable auto-complete to prevent users from inadvertently stumbling upon explicit material. Microsoft and Google have also set warnings to pop up when users enter certain words that will lead to child abuse images, with Google adding the messages to 13,000 search terms.
Initial research from the National Crime Agency has suggested that the search services' efforts are working. But the power of search engines to block communities conducting their activities on the so-called "dark web" – parts of the internet not ranked by search engines and hidden behind encryption and passwords – is limited.
David Cameron touted the summit and his discussions with Google and Microsoft as a "massive breakthrough", while the two tech firms provided fairly supportive lines from their respective leaders. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said: "We welcome the lead taken by the British government, and hope that the technology developed by our industry will make a real difference in the fight against this terrible crime."
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer added: "Stamping out these horrific images takes a team effort, so Microsoft is working in close partnership with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Internet Watch Foundation, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, Google and the UK government among others."
While coercing search engines into blocking illegal material is an easy public victory for the government, it will need to put much of its efforts into instead gaining access to the dark web in order to discover serial users of child abuse image sharing sites and bring them to a stop.
The US and the UK have already set up a joint taskforce for tackling the issue, and the government plans to host an international summit next year in order to bring together governments, charities, law enforcement and tech firms to "follow up" on the resolutions reached from Monday's summit.
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