YouTube vows to take ‘aggressive stance’ after brands pull ads over paedophile fears

The Google-owned video sharing platform says it will launch a crackdown following outrage that inappropriate videos of children posted on the site could embolden internet child sex abusers.

Major multinational companies have started pulling advertising from YouTube after their brand names appeared next to videos showing partially nude prepubescent girls that have attracted comments from hundreds of paedophiles.

Brands including Mars, BT, Deutsche Bank, Lidl and Cadbury pulled advertising from YouTube on the eve of one of the biggest shopping days of the year after investigations by the Times and BBC News showed how predatory men are using the Google-owned platform to view videos of undressed children, make lewd overtures and exchange links to child abuse material.

The Google-owned platform’s algorithms sometimes promote similar content – including one video showing naked toddlers and another of a boy taking a cold shower – to users interested in this type of material.

Some videos show young girls rolling around in bed in their underwear or showering in bikinis. Viewers have used the site to try and repeatedly contact the children posing in the videos and directly encourage them to pose in a more explicit way or perform sex acts.

MP Tim Loughton, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, suggested YouTube had become a “sweet shop” for paedophiles. Einar Otto Stangvik, a Norwegian security expert, told the Times sexualised images of children were not necessarily illegal but that there was a risk the videos could end up being reposted in paedophile discussion forums on the ‘dark web’.

YouTube has previously faced complaints about advertising on videos glorifying terrorism or promoting violent hatred towards Jews.

One senior police officer working in the field of child protection warned that the presence of inappropriate videos of children on a mainstream and successful platform risked making harmful behaviour appear normal and pushing paedophiles onto more abusive forms of content or even contact offending.

The child protection specialist, who serves at a high level in the police and did not want to be named, told E&T: “People become affirmed in their behaviour online and polarised into groups. This normalises it.”

He said there was some evidence that people with a developing sexual interest in children could became increasingly “desensitised” to relatively mild forms of erotic material on the open web and progressed onto viewing hardcore child pornography or, in some cases, even abusing children directly.

There is no suggestion YouTube has acted illegally in hosting the material uncovered in the investigations. However, the revelations throw into sharp relief the problem of what to do about certain videos on the internet, the transnational nature of which can lead to legal confusion.

Web-savvy paedophiles are known to seek out material using certain Russian keywords. Belarus, where Russian is spoken, has no indecent image legislation, so erotic webcam images of children that originate from inside that country cannot easily be dealt with. Policing insiders suggest much of the suspect video footage was shot in the Russian-speaking world.

Disparities in the age of consent across different national borders also create legal complexity. In Portugal, for example, the age of consent is 14. In the UK, a child is legally defined as anyone under 18, but the age of consent, when people can also marry, is 16.

Even UK laws around indecent images are not clear cut. Legislation is vague about what “indecent” actually means, but any photograph of a naked person aged under 18 could potentially be regarded as falling into this category. Courts typically decide what is or isn’t indecent based on “recognised standards of propriety”.

As well as so-called trusted flaggers, YouTube uses algorithms to identify inappropriate sexual or predatory comments. The system is said to be failing to tackle the problem and paedophiles are continuing to comment on videos of children.

The BBC and Times spoke to people from YouTube's “trusted flagger” scheme who report inappropriate content or behaviour by users to YouTube employees.

Some of the volunteer moderators told the BBC there could be “between 50,000 to 100,000 active predatory accounts still on the platform” while another told The Times there were “at least 50,000 active predators” on the site.

Confectionery giant Mars said: “We are shocked and appalled to see that our adverts have appeared alongside such exploitative and inappropriate content. It is in stark contrast to who we are and what we believe.

“We have taken the decision to immediately suspend all our online advertising on YouTube and Google globally. We have stringent guidelines and processes in place and are working with Google and our media buying agencies to understand what went wrong.

“Until we have confidence that appropriate safeguards are in place, we will not advertise on YouTube and Google.”

Lidl said: “We are extremely shocked and disturbed by the findings of this investigation and are grateful to have been informed about this. We have suspended all of our YouTube advertising with immediate effect.

“It is completely unacceptable that this content is available to view and it is, therefore, clear that the strict policies which Google has assured us were in place to tackle offensive content are ineffective.”

YouTube said it had noticed a growing trend around content “that attempts to pass as family-friendly, but is clearly not” in recent months and announced new ways it was “toughening our approach”.

Johanna Wright, vice president of product management at YouTube, said in a blog post: “We have historically used a combination of automated systems and human flagging and review to remove inappropriate sexual or predatory comments on videos featuring minors.

“Comments of this nature are abhorrent and we work to report illegal behaviour to law enforcement.

“Starting this week we will begin taking an even more aggressive stance by turning off all comments on videos of minors where we see these types of comments.”

A Deutsche Bank spokesman: “We take this matter very seriously and suspended the advertising campaign as soon as we became aware of it.

“As always, our digital marketing agency applied filters to prevent our advertising appearing alongside inappropriate content and we are investigating how the situation arose.”

E&T recently published an exclusive feature on this subject, speaking to detectives involved in the war against internet paedophiles.

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