An alliance of some of the world’s biggest tech firms has backed a global plan to “eradicate” online child sexual abuse with annual reports to address its fight on abusive content. 

The Tech Coalition, a partnership of 18 companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, announced the launch of a new project on Thursday that pledges to invest millions of dollars to create a research fund and stamp out online exploitation. 

The issue of child abuse online has rapidly grown in recent years as abusers have increasingly used social networks to target vulnerable young people. 

Figures from Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, suggest two thirds of the young people it works with have been groomed online, while other child welfare advocates have claimed that images of underage abuse are now in the tens of millions on the internet.

Project Protect, as the plan is known, will look to build new technologies that can scour the internet for abuse. Already, the likes of Facebook have built open-source tools that use algorithms to identify individuals in photos and videos that might be at risk. 

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said she hopes the project “will lead to real changes” that keep children safe, claiming it was critical for a collaborative approach to  “a grave issue that no one company can solve on its own”. 

Part of the plan also involves regular forums with governments and law enforcement around to world to ensure periodic updates on the progress being made.

It comes as tech firms across the world have come under increasing pressure to confront the spread of online child sexual abuse, with calls from government for companies to limit their end-to-end encryption protocols that make it more difficult to conduct investigations.

In the UK, media watchdog Ofcom is drafting “duty of care” legislation to ensure social media firms take action on harmful content across their services.

Addressing the launch, Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, described the project as a “welcome example” of tech companies taking action to better protect children both on and offline. 

“The internet provides fantastic opportunities for children but we can’t ignore the risks,” he said. “Online platforms must urgently be made safer so that children can learn, play and socialise free from harm.”

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