Fighting online abuse of kids: VC-backed startups step in where big tech struggles

Advances in encryption technologies have made it challenging for software providers and law enforcement to track predators and combat online abuse aimed at minors.

Tech giants have struggled for years to beef up child-protection measures on their platforms. And that has prompted several startups to develop technology designed to plug holes in current gatekeeping measures.

Microsoft‘s “Project Artemis,” which launched in January, aims to help detect sexual predators who are befriending children via online chat platforms. However, the software focuses on text-based conversations, omitting other forms of media such as images or videos.

Facebook‘s Messenger Kids app has been widely criticized for allowing children to join chats with unauthorized users, in what’s possibly a violation of federal online protection law.

And Google agreed to pay a $170 million fine in September after federal regulators said that its subsidiary YouTube had illegally gathered children’s data without their parents’ consent.

It’s that backdrop that has opened a window of opportunity for small upstarts.

SuperAwesome‘s software is designed to help kids use the internet without their personal data being tracked. The London-based company secured a reported $17 million investment led by Microsoft’s venture arm, M12, in January. Jiminy, the developer of a child-monitoring app, helps parents identify issues based on their child’s online activities.

Tel Aviv-based L1ght is a startup using AI and algorithms to protect children from online abuse, including cyberbullying, shaming and exposure to hate speech. Founded in 2018, the company provides tech to social networks, gaming platforms, communication apps and web-hosting providers that helps identify predatory behavior.

L1ght said Tuesday that it has raised $15 million in seed financing co-led by Mangrove Capital Partners and Tribeca Venture Partners.

Some companies’ previous protective measures have relied on banning specific words using a pre-defined blacklist. L1ght’s technology analyzes contextual references over time to identify media that may seem harmless when viewed independently but is actually dangerous when examined in a broader context.

L1ght is also able to distinguish between a consensual exchange of images or videos between adults versus a child abuser trying to lure in a minor.

In many consumer apps, parents are able to track their kids’ online activities. But parental monitoring sometimes does more harm than good, because it can hurt relationships and still leave kids exposed to some sources of online abuse, said Yoav Vilner, chief marketing officer and founding member at L1ght.

Vilner did not disclose the names of its users, but highlighted that L1ght is commercially operating with “several active customers” and is reviewing proposals from a couple of US law enforcement agencies. The company has a big challenge ahead: to distribute L1ght’s proprietary algorithms to major online platforms.

“It’s hard for them to admit they have a problem,” said Vilner. “And it’s even harder to convince them it’s time for them to stop this problem at 100%.”

Vilner said L1ght is actively competing with other B2B startups that offer child-safety tech.

“Whoever gets to actually work with the big social platforms will eventually succeed in capturing the market. That has not happened yet,” he said.

(Featured image via Maskot/Getty Images)


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