PLDT, Smart begin blocking on content level, upping war vs online child abuse

The fight against online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) has stepped up a notch, with PLDT and Smart launching content-level blocking.

Because of the organizations’ new participation in the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), they now have access to 5,800 URLs containing child sex abuse content, which they have banned during the last week. This is on top of the 3,000 websites they had blocked access to before joining the IWF.

PLDT, the Philippines’ largest fully integrated telco, and its wireless affiliate Smart are now the only telecom businesses in the nation with the capacity to block up to the content level, keeping children safe and preventing internet abusers from exploiting youngsters.

Membership in the IWF, based in the United Kingdom, is an important part of PLDT and Smart’s child safety platform. The platform checks the unlawful content that consumers are trying to access against the company’s database using various technologies. It can restrict access to a single file rather than a whole website. This is especially beneficial for preventing the distribution of sexually explicit content depicting minors on lawful domains.

“When our customers try to open offensive content, they are immediately brought to a landing page telling them that the material violates Republic Act 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Law,” explained Angel Redoble, Chief Information Security Officer at PLDT and Smart.

The child protection platform, which was launched in the first quarter of this year, allows PLDT and Smart to block child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) in two ways: at the domain level and, now, with IWF membership, at the content level.

“When a child abuse content finds its way into a legitimate domain like social media platforms or video-sharing sites, we can’t block the entire web page because that will prevent all our customers from accessing materials on that domain that are not related to OSAEC,” said Redoble.

The difficulty is in preventing illegal materials from making their way onto authorized domains. Because the legislation in the Philippines prohibits internet service providers from actively sifting through data that passes through their network, PLDT and Smart use open-source threat intelligence, acquire commercial threat intelligence, and rely on law enforcement authorities to send links to child abuse materials that have been put on the internet.

This is where the benefit of an IWF membership comes into play. The IWF is a non-profit organization backed by the global internet industry and the European Commission that works together with national law enforcement agencies, internet service providers and platforms, and charity groups to remove sites, keywords, hash lists, and digital fingerprints that include child abuse materials.

In addition to receiving reports from the public through its 47 reporting portals, which serve 2.4 billion people worldwide, the IWF’s highly trained analysts actively scan the internet for photographs and videos of child sexual abuse. They then collaborate with international partners to have them removed.

The IWF deploys technology that allows it to detect CSAM by running their unique codes or “hashes” against known blacklists.

The IWF then passes the harmful URLs to PLDT and Smart, who transform them to IP addresses that direct users to the child safety platform when they visit them. The platform then redirects to the National Telecommunications Commission’s landing page, which tells the user that the content they are seeing is in violation of Republic Act 9775, also known as the Anti-Child Pornography Act.

The IWF has developed an intelligent web crawler that it uses to visit specific parts of the internet in a systematic manner. What sets theirs apart from others, according to the group, is that it has over 566,000 hashes of known child sexual assault photographs.

Since the IWF membership, PLDT and Smart have gained access to the organization’s growing database that contains over 9,000 links to sexually explicit files featuring children.

PLDT and Smart have been able to ban 3,345 web addresses associated with CSAM since then, including 34 domains and 286 IP addresses in just the second part of May. PLDT and Smart had already banned roughly 3,000 websites linked to online child abuse before forging cooperation with IWF.

PLDT and Smart have been tightening their own corporate policies and linking kid protection into their larger sustainability strategy in addition to using technological solutions. The firms have recently set out their own Child Safeguarding Policies and piloted the revised Mobile Operators Child Rights Effect Assessment (MO-CRIA) tool as a consequence of their relationship with UNICEF, furthering the push to control business impact on children and aligning with global best practices for child safety.

These initiatives underscore PLDT and Smart’s commitment to UNSDG #16 that promotes just, peaceful and inclusive societies including the end to abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children.

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