More than 100 child protection advocates have called on Facebook to halt the roll-out of end-to-end encryption.

In a letter to Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, the 129 organisations and experts said plans to encrypt messages could encourage more sexual abuse on the site.

Encryption would damage Facebook’s ability to identify and stop grooming behaviour on its platforms and allow abusers to target children more easily, the group claims.

They asked Mr Zuckerberg not to go ahead with the encryption plans until he could guarantee child safety would not be compromised.

The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children received 16.8 million reports from Facebook in 2018, which are estimated to have led to 3,000 children being safeguarded in the UK.

But the organisations says that end-to-end encryption could mean 70% of those reports – 12 million every year – being lost.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: Facebook may be happy to shut their eyes to abuse but they can’t close their ears to this unanimous concern shown by international experts.

Mark Zuckerberg has a choice whether to allow sexual abuse to soar on his sites or listen to those from all over the world asking him to rethink how to implement encryption without putting children at risk.

In its current form encryption would breach Facebook’s duty of care for children so the UK government must ensure a new regulator has the power to hold them financially and criminally accountable.

The group, led by the NSPCC, includes signatories from Australia, India and the US.

UK signatories were the NSPCC, Stop It Now!, John Carr (Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety), Barnardo’s, 5 Rights, Coram BAAF and Kidscape.

In a blog in March, Mr Zuckerberg wrote: Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion.

We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work.

But we face an inherent trade-off because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.

Responding to the letter, Facebook’s head of safety for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, David Miles said: Strong encryption is critically important to keep everyone safe from hackers and criminals.

The rollout of end-to-end encryption is a long-term project, protecting children online is critically important to this effort and we are committed to building strong safety measures into our plans.

We are working closely with child safety experts including NCMEC, law enforcement, governments and other technology companies to help keep children safe online.

We have led the industry in safeguarding children from exploitation and we are bringing this same commitment and leadership to our work on encryption.

Over the last few years, we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team and now have more than 35,000 people working to protect the people using our platforms.

We are also continuing to invest billions in safety, including artificial intelligence technology to proactively find and remove harmful content.

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(c) Sky News 2020: Experts: Facebook must stop encryption roll-out to keep children safe