Major companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter, are in secret discussions to create a system that could banish child abuse images from the web.
The plan would be the first collaborative effort across the industry to block paedophiles from sharing images online, and would involve a single database of the worst child abuse images.
At the moment, each company has its own process for removing abusive photos but does not share details of the images for legal and technical reasons.
According to The Times, internet giants including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and at least three other major companies have been in negotiations for about nine months to work together on combating the explicit images.
To take part in Thorn's project, each company would use Microsoft's PhotoDNA software to create a "hash" or digital signature for each abusive image. The companies could then use the hashes to easily identify and remove pictures from their own sites.
Julie Cordua, executive director of Thorn, told The Times: “This has the goal of cleaning this horrific content off platforms ... with the goal of the identification of victims.”
Sources told the newspaper that some companies had signed legal agreements not to discuss the project in public, and that secrecy was required to allow frank discussions.
Facebook is believed to be the first company to begin testing the system and Google will begin using it this month.
All images will be sent to the US police and Britain’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has also reportedly been informed.
Google confirmed to The Times that it is part of the Thorn database project. Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo! did not confirm involvement but said that they were participants in the charity’s task force, which discusses online protection. According to Thorn's website, 18 compaines are part of the task force.
Microsoft said: "Microsoft is working with the Thorn Foundation’s technology task force to help develop and improve ways to combat the scourge of child abuse content online.
"The industry has been discussing the benefits of hash sharing opportunities that build on NCMEC’s use of Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology and the greater use of these kinds of technologies across public and private sectors will be instrumental in our collective efforts to tackle child abuse material."
Facebook said: “From creating powerful tools to find child exploitative content, to building teams of expert investigators, we are committed to using technology as a force to protect children, while also working with many partners to bring to justice those who exploit them.”