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Inconsistent Laws Perpetuate Unsafe Online Spaces for Children & Young People

The UN commemorates internet safety day on February 8th, meant to raise awareness about the dangers of online sexual exploitation and abuse

The UN commemorates Safe Internet Day annually on February 8. Credit: International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 8 2022 (IPS) - The internet and digital technology have allowed children and young people to connect, exchange knowledge and information, and truly turn the world into a global village.

Although a lot of good has come from this level of connectivity, the ability to reach millions of people at the click of a button has also allowed bad actors access to a wider potential victim pool.

Most critically, increased accessibility to the internet has exacerbated the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and young people.

What happens offline has found its way online. Children and young people are repeatedly victimised as these crimes are usually captured in permanent digital images that are perpetually reshared online resulting in long-term impact that often lasts into adulthood.

There is an urgent need to develop adequate and future-proof laws that ensure safe, responsible, and positive use of the internet and digital technology to guarantee children and young people are able to safely enjoy online spaces.

While online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) occurs in digital spaces, the roots of this form of violence are fundamentally the same as those that occur in the physical world. Sexism, gender-based discrimination, intersecting inequalities, cultural beliefs, and social norms underpin sexual abuse and exploitation that occurs “in the real world” as well as online.

The factors that make children and young people vulnerable to OSEA were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic prompted the closure of schools, recreational centers, after school activities and other places where children and young people tend to spend a majority of their time.

These necessary public health measures led to an unprecedented number of children and young people going online and using digital technologies, some for the first time and many with little or no supervision.


The coronavirus pandemic causing many children to attend school online has increased risks and opportunity for online sexual exploitation and abuse to occur

Many children are attending online school from home during the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: UNICEF/Lisa Adelson


Regulation of online sexual exploitation and abuse

At Equality Now, we believe that one of the ways to end OSEA and create secure and respectful online spaces is to have laws, policies, and measures that adopt a human rights-based approach and are informed by the needs and experiences of OSEA survivors.

OSEA is global and multi-jurisdictional because offenders, victims, and digital platforms are often located in different countries which presents legal challenges when prosecuting offenders. As such, legal remedies for survivors need to be multi-jurisdictional and enforceable internationally.

OSEA is not only found on the dark web but on the surface web where children and young people frequently socialise and create and share content. In Equality Now’s latest report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation And Abuse Of Women And Girls: A Call For International Standards, we examined legal responses to this global problem.

Adolescent girls and legal experts in India, Kenya, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States informed us of their experiences of OSEA on social media apps, which are easily accessible to children and young people and require very little data to access.

For instance, many girls shared that request for intimate images were a common occurrence and that reporting these incidents to the police was extremely difficult. They reported that they were afraid that the authorities and their community would shame them and that their reports would not be taken seriously.

In some instances, girls simply blocked the offenders and did not report the abuse to the police or the social media platform. The stigma associated with experiencing OSEA prevents victims from reporting, which only contributes to the vicious cycle of abuse.

Children and young people are going online without information on how to protect themselves or identify and report offenders. Their caregivers are also not always well equipped to manage these challenges.

Digital platforms need to improve their systems for reporting OSEA by making it easier for children, young people, and their caregivers to report abuse and exploitation and track the progress of their reports.

They must also ensure that they have systems in place to respond in a timely manner to complaints and inform users of the decisions and actions they have taken.

It has become clear that relying on digital platforms to self-regulate has not been sufficient in preventing OSEA, thus governments and international bodies must take a more proactive approach and develop and implement laws that regulate the policies and practices adopted and applied by digital platforms.

National laws should require that these reports are also passed on to national authorities and monitoring bodies, not only when the incidents are criminal, as is currently the case. This will enable authorities and monitoring bodies to understand offending pathways better and be better equipped to detect OSEA.

Balancing digital rights with preventing online sexual exploitation and abuse

A critical and often contentious issue is how to effectively balance between users’ various digital rights and interests — freedom of expression online and online privacy with protection from online harms, such as OSEA.

For instance, there are concerns that regulating what users post online and holding digital platforms liable for user-generated content online could lead to self-censorship and/or digital platforms erring on the side of caution and removing content which would, in turn, infringe on users’ freedom of expression.

An approach that can be adopted is a principle established under international human rights law, that in the event of a violation of the rights of others, the freedom of expression of alleged offenders can be limited if the limitations are legal, legitimate, necessary and proportionate.

But for this approach to be effective, there must first be legal clarity on what constitutes OSEA. Laws should define OSEA, and exclude speech or expression that is in fact OSEA from freedom of expression protection.

This would be similar to the case of children, where many countries categorically exclude offers or requests to obtain Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) from freedom of expression protections.

Still with this protection provided for CSAM, the detection of adolescents in CSAM on the internet is a challenge for law enforcement and digital platforms. Human reviewers and automated tools that detect CSAM online cannot always be sure that images of young people who have reached puberty are not images of adults.

Technology companies have made great strides in developing tools to detect CSAM on their platforms and we call on them to use these capabilities to address this gap in technological tools and work with law enforcement and child protection specialists who can bring their skills to improve detection of adolescent victims.

Our report found that laws at the international and national levels are currently inadequate to deal with the global and multi-jurisdictional nature of OSEA and the legal complexities this brings.

The existence of gaps and lacunae in the law due to the rapid evolution of technology and the law’s failure to keep pace has created patchwork offences and a lack of coherence in the law which has made reporting, prosecution, and online content moderation difficult.

Across many countries, this leaves children and young people with inadequate or no safeguards from OSEA.

Equality Now calls on the international community to develop and adopt legally binding international standards that provide for protection of all vulnerable people from all forms of OSEA. The international standards would demonstrate consensus on the severity of OSEA and provide a framework for legal implementation, policies, programs, and international cooperation.

Amanda Manyame is Digital Law and Rights Advisor at Equality Now


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