International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children Australia Ltd

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The role of regulation in the collaborative fight against child sexual abuse

April 25, 2023

Throughout childhood in Australia, more than 1 in 3 girls and almost 1 in 4 boys experience sexual abuse.

The sexual abuse of children is one of the most wicked crimes, exploiting some of the most vulnerable in our society. Our approach to protecting young people and preserving their childhood not only impacts their physical and mental wellbeing, it also determines the quality of their future and how we shape society as a whole into the future.

Since the advent of the internet more than two decades ago, the rate at which children are harmed has been escalating year on year. Each time contact abuse is filmed or photographed, or a child is coerced into self-generating child sexual abuse imagery, the mere existence of these images or videos is re-traumatising for victim survivors. In 2021-22, the ACCCE received more than 36,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation. And each instance of an image or video is evidence of a crime.

Just as we have regulation to protect children in the physical world, we need the same for the online space. Perhaps more so given the ease with which criminals can hide their identities and location when acting online. While children haven’t always been afforded protection, since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, it is now accepted that children have the right to be protected and live a life free from abuse and neglect.

And, whilst in principle these rights also apply in the online space, regulating the internet presents unique challenges for those with the job of protecting children.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner is making waves internationally as the first dedicated online safety regulator tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Our Online Safety Act, enacted in 2021, was momentous legislation, paving the way for an influx of online safety legislation globally that aims to create a safer online environment for children.

Under this legislation, eSafety began the rigorous process of developing a series of Industry Codes for various online platforms and technology companies to ensure that they have sufficient measures to prevent the online sexual harm of children. The platforms and software delivered by these organisations are often manipulated by offenders to harm, abuse, and exploit children. The second round of this process began in February this year, after Commissioner Julie Inman Grant told industry that the draft codes they delivered at the end of 2022 do not provide adequate community safeguards. During this process the community was once again given the opportunity to submit feedback on the proposed Codes prior to industry submitting the next iteration at the end of March 2023.

While we’re waiting for the outcome of the eSafety Commissioner’s review of the draft Industry Codes in the coming months, we’ve been interested to observe the increased legislative activities around the world in relation to the online safety of children. Although each jurisdiction quite rightly remains responsible for their own legislation, the internet and, therefore this crime, crosses borders. Each country needs to regulate based on their own laws, but having some coherence and alignment of approach will facilitate a better overall outcome for children.

France has made significant strides in recent months towards implementing strong regulatory measures to protect children from online harms, both in terms of restricting their access to harmful adult content and their ability to have unrestricted access to online social platforms. Last month, French MPs adopted legislation restricting social media access to children under 15 without explicit parental approval. This is a positive step forward, however the Bill still needs to pass the plenary session and the Senate before it can be implemented. Age verification is a measure that continues to be a consideration for both policymakers and internet companies, and France has made their position clear with this legislative change.

Meanwhile in the UK, the proposed Online Safety Bill places a responsibility on all online platforms to protect children from harm and remove child sexual abuse material. If this legislation is passed, platforms will have to proactively prevent that material from reaching users. The UK government has also received an open letter in recent weeks calling into question clauses that would allow Ofcom to compel communications providers to take action to prevent harm to users, specifically in relation to end-to-end encryption of messages. This demonstrates the difficult task that faces regulators in preventing the online abuse of children. And whilst the online platforms aren’t to blame for CSE material travelling around the internet – that responsibility rests squarely with those who commit this crime – they do have an obligation to make their platforms as safe as possible for children.

Regulators like eSafety are well-positioned to provide a clear framework for platforms and organisations to work within. The new Global Online Safety Regulators Network, headed by eSafety, demonstrates the importance of a collaborative response to this crime. The intention with the network is to create a more coherent approach to the problem on a global scale. Currently Australia, Fiji, Ireland and the UK have committed to regulatory collaboration and cohesion, with the aim to increase the network over time.

Whilst regulatory involvement in the issue of child sexual exploitation facilitated online is essential, the complexities of CSE means that a multi-pronged approach is critical to enhancing the detection, reporting, and prosecution of this crime. Legislation provides a clear framework and sets out the direction and expectations for how the other organisations in the CSE response ecosystem need to prioritise the safety of children.

We know that offenders communicate and collaborate in forums and communities, helping each other elude detection by sharing information and tips. A collaborative response underpinned by strong and clear legislation is our best chance of disrupting the perpetrator networks.

And we need collaboration at all levels, including the development of strong regulatory guidelines. Each contributor to the CSE response ecosystem brings their different perspective and experience, which is vital to the consistent review and stakeholder input needed. This ensures that the regulation reflects what’s needed to make the online world safe for children.

We’re eager to see the outcome of the eSafety Commissioner’s review of the Codes and the potential impacts when they are applied at a practical level. The collaborative process in developing them has been important to bring all the parties together in a robust discussion that has ultimately brought the issue of online child safety to the fore.

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