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OPINION: Lessons from Lockdown: The need for online safety legislation

by John Tanagho | IJM's Centre to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 11:28 GMT

A police officer and a social worker escort a child survivor of online sexual exploitation during a rescue operation in the Philippines in February 2021. Photo courtesy of Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We should treat the explosion of child sexual exploitation online as the hidden pandemic that it is – and the UK Online Safety Bill is a key building block

By John Tanagho, the Executive Director of IJM’s Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.

Child sexual exploitation online has exploded in recent years. At a click, child sex offenders in places like the UK can pay to abuse children the world over, in real time. The world’s most vulnerable children are most at risk of this sickening abuse. Yet, because this crime is often hidden, the true scale of the harm remains unknown.

New UK online safety legislation is at the forefront of exposing these brutal crimes against children. Strong legislation working alongside industry, civil society and law enforcement can enhance detection and reporting, exposing offenders to accountability and bringing children to safety.

In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received reports containing 65.4 million images, videos and files relating to child sexual exploitation. Despite this massive statistic, the reality is obscured by inconsistent detection and under-reporting, with no one knowing what percentage of platforms use automated tools to detect known or new material.

IJM works in the Philippines to counter one form of exploitation: trafficking to create new child sexual exploitation material (CSEM), especially via livestreaming. Sex offenders overseas commission, direct and pay for the sexual abuse of children, instructing traffickers in the Philippines on what type of abuse they want to see, in real time. IJM has partnered with local and international authorities to bring more than 780 victims to safety and 100 traffickers to justice.

But the sex offenders who direct and create the demand for this exploitation are not in the Philippines. Rather, they are hiding behind their screens, usually in Western countries according to IJM research published in 2020.  As one survivor told IJM, “I was asked to strip in front of the camera while a foreigner watches and dictates my next actions”.

According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), an estimated 550,000 to 850,000 people in the UK pose a sexual risk to children, including online. The UK is the third largest global consumer of livestreamed abuse.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, risks of human trafficking increased. EUROPOL reported the number of incidents involving live distance child abuse intensifying.  With offenders spending more time at home and children trapped with their traffickers, the perfect conditions were created for this exploitation to grow.

The harm that online sexual exploitation causes victims cannot be overstated. IJM has seen cases of toddlers found with multiple sexually transmitted diseases. The trauma too can be deep and lasting: “I felt disgusted by every action I was forced to do just to satisfy customers online. I lost my self-esteem and I felt very weak. I became so desperate to escape, to the point that I would shout whenever I heard a police siren go by, hoping somebody would hear me,” one survivor told IJM. 

But this reality can change. In 23 years of working on the frontlines, IJM has learned that replacing impunity with accountability protects people from violence. 

The Online Safety Bill is an opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to do just that. The Bill seeks to establish a regulatory framework to tackle harmful content and activity online. It places duties of care on regulated services with links to the UK and holds companies accountable for protecting children on their platforms from sexual exploitation and abuse.

This Bill has the potential to help achieve the reality of a safer internet for children through a strong approach to the systematic abuse of platforms for sexual exploitation. There are, however, areas in which the Bill can be strengthened.

Currently, the Bill requires that child sexual exploitation be “prevalent” or “persistently present” on a platform before enforcement action can be taken. Yet this still allows for significant levels of child sexual abuse to exist under the umbrella of compliance. A strong statement that any significant level of child sexual abuse online will not be tolerated would help end impunity and protect children by raising the expectations across industry.

Would governments be satisfied if copyright infringements were not “prevalent” or “persistently present” online?  Certainly not, and child sexual abuse cannot have a lower standard. 

Legislation must go hand-in-hand with improved detection and reporting. Not only is there a need for increased proactive detection of all CSEM, but there is also a need for innovation to identify hard to detect abuse in livestreaming and first-generation CSEM.  A safety-by-design approach can mainstream child protection. Prioritising protecting children and their privacy will lead to widespread industry use of tech innovations, automated detection, and cross-industry collaboration.

The explosion of child sexual exploitation online may seem insurmountable.  But it is not.  We can treat this as the hidden pandemic that it is, with government and corporate leaders urgently prioritising solutions as the world did for COVID-19. The UK’s Online Safety Bill is a key building block.

And that is how we protect children today, tomorrow and every day.