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Can Preventing the Spread of Child Pornography Benefit Business? The Case of Telia

Chandre Gould
Håkan Dahlström Photography

Telia company logo courtesy of Håkan Dahlström via Flickr Commons.

How to marshal the knowledge, resources, and power of the private sector to achieve good social outcomes? This has been a holy grail of many working in the social justice and non-profit sector. It may seem self-evident that achieving good social outcomes — more development, a healthier population and less violence — is in the interests of business. But, that is simply not the case. Alcohol companies that market their products aggressively in poor neighborhoods feed high levels of inter-personal violence and increase risky sexual behavior, both at great cost to the health system and society. And companies producing fast foods and sodas have contributed to high levels of obesity and diabetes globally. These are just two examples of how business interests do not always align with social interests.But, there are a growing number of companies that have discovered that contributing to good social outcomes can benefit business. One such example is Telia, a large telecommunications company and internet service provider in the Baltic and Nordic states that has acted to prevent the spread and use of online child pornography.

I spoke to Anne Larilahti, Head of Sustainability at Telia. She said that Telia decided to block access to internet sites that Interpol and the local police identified as carriers of images of child sexual abuse. "We believe in an open internet and we never block sites unless we are legally obliged to do so. This is the only case in which we have taken the decision to block access voluntarily."

Telia has gone further: "All computers owned and used by our company have software, which detects material that Interpol has identified as depicting child sexual abuse. The technology detects only those images that have already been deemed illegal by the police, so there is no risk that family pictures — such as a picture of your child in the bath — can get caught by the system. And when we get a hit — which means a staff member has accessed an illegal picture — we notify the police immediately and they investigate further."

According to Ms. Larilahti, research has shown that about 1 out of every 1,000 employees in any company will watch online material depicting child sexual abuse, and as many as 50 percent of these employees also abuse children. "This is something that affects all companies, and all companies can do something about it. There is a cost associated with this kind of technology, but there is also a cost associated with not doing anything — a cost to children and to society."

Telia has also realized that they need to understand how children — the potential victims of online sexual abuse — experience the risks. The company recently consulted 850 children about the risks they face when using the internet and what they fear. "It is very cool to be able to hear from children themselves," Ms. Larilahti said. "I find that they understand the dangers associated with social media and the internet and they have very sophisticated ways to protect themselves. I asked a teenage girl whether she ever speaks to strangers on social media or over the internet. She said that there was a boy from across town that she had been flirting with. I asked her how she knew that she was actually speaking to a boy and not to a 50-year-old man posing as a boy. She told me that she had asked him for pictures of himself with a pot on his head, or holding up two fingers. If he didn't respond quickly enough she would know that there is a problem. It's humbling and important to hear what clever solutions children are finding to minimize the risks."

Few would disagree that preventing online child sexual abuse is an important and a noble cause, but that alone is surely not enough to motivate a company like Telia to take what amounts to radical action for a telecommunications company. I asked Ms. Larilahti why they do it. "A third of all internet users are children and these are our future employees and our future customers, we have to be responsible for them now. There are of course other pressing issues relating to child abuse and violence against children, but these actions relate to our core business and ties in with our strategy."

And what benefit, I asked, is there to the company's core business? According to Ms. Larilahti the company "wants to be seen by our customers as a trusted partner. If you are a mother or father of young children, we want you to feel that we take responsibility and support you. This also creates pride amongst our employees. Everyone can relate to this. Everyone can understand it. People feel so proud to be part of it. That is very important for our company, because we are competing with all other companies for the pool of talented young people and it is especially important for millennials, who demand that the companies they work for have a social conscience and are making a positive difference in the world. Millennials are very mobile, they don't have company loyalty and easily move on after a short time. We need to be conscious of that and do things that keep them with us."

There are many innovative ways that businesses can contribute to preventing child abuse and exploitation, and other forms of violence against children. Sometimes, like in the case of Telia, these actions require a partnership with law enforcement agencies. Other actions, such as providing good quality in-house early childhood development centers, or positive parenting programs for staff may require different partnerships, such as with NGOs. What Telia has shown is that taking action to prevent child abuse is good for staff and customer loyalty, and in the long run will benefit children. The bottom line, wouldn't it be great if more companies could find this sweet spot where achieving a good social outcome also benefits business?

Chandre Gould is a Senior Research Fellow for the Justice and Violence Prevention Program at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. She is a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar for the Spring 2018 term. 

About the Author

Chandre Gould

Chandre Gould

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Security Studies
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