In 2018, the United States saw millions of reported instances of child sexual exploitation on the internet. Many of these harrowing stories have escaped public notice, said Julie Cordua, the CEO of Thorn, a nonprofit that builds technology to defend children from sexual abuse.
Cordua works with the company’s co-founder, Ashton Kutcher, to encourage companies to weed out abuse on their online platforms.
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On Tuesday, Thorn became one of eight groups to receive funding f rom the Audacious Project, aTED-sponsored fund giving away $280 million to organizations with bold ideas for solving the world’s most pressing issues.
Thorn was awarded the money to help in its quest of eliminating child sexual abuse material from the internet.
In 2017, Kutchertestified about the issue before Congress, recalling a phone call his team received from the Department of Homeland Security, which was searching for a seven-year-old victim of sexual abuse.
Cordua said the child had been featured in hundreds of sexually abusive images, but the authorities were unable to locate her perpetrator.
“We started brainstorming all the different ways that we could help, what technologies could help,” Cordua told Business Insider. “We realized that there was nothing designed to help with these kinds of cases.”
Kutcher testifying before Congress.YouTube/ABC News
Funding from Audacious will help Thorn build out its technology, which helps law enforcement agencies identify trafficked children and gives companies the tools to stop the spread of abusive content.
“Child sexual abuse obviously is a human crime, but the Internet is introducing this entirely new dynamic,” Cordua told Business Insider. “Now you can find entire chat rooms and places where there are people who will convince you that this type of behavior is okay.”
Thorn’s software is being beta tested by companies like Imgur and Flickr, but Cordua said it can be used by “any platform that allows you to upload an image, upload a video, share a chat, [or] connect with people around the world.”
One challenge to rolling out the software, she said, is that many companies are fearful of discovering abusive content on their platform. But Cordua envisions a future where companies will be rewarded for shutting down traffickers.
“Most entrepreneurs only think amazing things about their technology, which is why they’re great innovators,” said Cordua. “[But] at some critical tipping point, if certain people or organizations haven’t taken action, then that’s questionable.”
Funding from the Audacious Project could bring Thorn closer to achieving that tipping point, Cordua said.
The project, now in its second year, has already helped scale the efforts of organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, which used the prize to further its goal of launchinga methane-tracking satellite, and the Bail Project, which has posted bail for more than 4,000 people.
In addition to Thorn, this year’s recipients include three scientific organizations (the Institute for Protein Design, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the END Fund), one environmental group (The Nature Conservancy), two educational organizations (Educate Girls and Waterford UPSTART), and the Center for Policing Equity, a criminal justice group.
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