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Religious investors push telecom companies to outwit online molesters

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At Verizon’s annual meeting, resolution makes strong showing.

Telecom companies are working to attract younger and younger users of mobile devices, but are not doing enough to protect those users from online abuse, religious communities have charged.

Christian Brothers Investment Services, an investment partner for Catholic institutions and consultants, raised the issue at Verizon’s annual meeting May 2 in Orlando, Florida. The religious investment firm, joined by several religious orders, introduced a resolution addressing online risks faced by children.

The resolution—calling for a report by March 2020 on the potential sexual exploitation of children through the company’s products and services—gained 33.7 percent approval from shareholders, Catholic News Service reported.

“While it was far from the majority needed for passage, such a high level of support for a first-time resolution is unusual in the corporate world,” CNS said.

The problem involves children being exposed to inappropriate content; the soliciting of youngsters to send inappropriate photos of themselves through social media, pornographic videos and live streaming; and the manipulation and distribution of normal family photos of children stolen from computers and cellphones, the wire service explained.

The religious shareholders want telecom companies to take strong action to block explicit images from their communication networks.

CBIS was joined in the resolution by the Maryknoll Sisters, the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell, New Jersey, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia and Proxy Impact, which assists private shareholders in advocacy work to promote sustainable and responsible business practices.

“I’ve tried to engage with (Verizon) for over a year and every time I spoke with someone I didn’t have strong confidence in what they were saying, or I didn’t have the right person who could give me the answer (about their practices),” Tracey Rembert, director of Catholic responsible investing at CBIS, told Catholic News Service May 14.

Perpetrators are using increasingly sophisticated means, including encryption, to avoid detection, Rembert said.

She pointed out that, in addition to the moral aspect of the problem, companies face high risks to their reputation and financial bottom line if they fail to protect children.

CNS also reported that Rembert, along with Cathy Rowan, corporate responsibility coordinator for the Maryknoll Sisters, and Sister Patricia Daly, corporate responsibility representative for the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell, was dissatisfied after meeting with Verizon officials in January.

“They increased disclosure a bit, but we felt it was too vague and there is no way to assess how complete their response is,” Rowan told CNS.

Verizon said in a statement emailed May 15 that it “is proud of the leadership role we play in combating the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online.”

The statement provided links to two sites outlining “our ongoing commitment to online child safety and the extensive resources we devote in the fight against online predators” and ”educational tools and guidance to help parents and children navigate the digital world.”

Other companies approached by the shareholders include Apple and Sprint. A resolution that recently had been filed with Apple was withdrawn when the company announced a commitment to address shareholder concerns, CNS said.

Rembert hopes to see a type of industry-wide code of conduct developed in collaboration with investors, child protection groups, law enforcement agencies and governments.

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