The online world has brought us enormous advantages. But it has also revealed some of the darkest facets of human character — none darker than the online sexual abuse of defenceless children.
This is material that we at eSafety grapple with every day, and at times the task feels insurmountable.
During 2018 alone, there were 18.4 million referrals of online child sexual abuse by technology companies to the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Here at eSafety, we have conducted more than 12,000 investigations into child sexual abuse material this year, a 50% increase over last year.
And there is much worse to come. A major international conference earlier this month heard that there is a “tsunami” of growth in online child sexual abuse material. Participants at the WePROTECT Global Alliance Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were told that factors prompting this alarming growth-rate included:
- the availability of state-of-the-art encryption technology to online paedophile networks
- the increase in children accessing the internet, and the lowering of the age at which they typically do so
- the rapid uptake of the internet in countries that have not had the opportunity to develop the educational, law enforcement and regulatory resources to manage it effectively.
WePROTECT is a global alliance of unprecedented reach, with more than 90 member countries, along with major international organisations, 24 of the biggest names in the global technology industry and 20 leading civil society organisations. Interest and membership continue to grow.
What makes WePROTECT especially significant is that international collaboration is so critical to ending the proliferation of heinous child sexual abuse material, given the trans-national character of the internet itself.
It was my honour as eSafety Commissioner, and as a member of the WePROTECT Policy Board, to present the Summit with a world-first Global Strategic Response to the Global Threat Assessment outlined above. The Response recognises that global collaboration is essential to tackling this issue. Australia is proud to be represented on this influential global board, and we at eSafety, as the world’s only dedicated online safety regulator, are committed to helping build further international capacity in combatting online child sexual exploitation.
Also representing Australia at the Summit was Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose powerful speech highlighted the responsibility of large internet companies to prioritise the safety of children, placing it even higher the privacy of those who use their platforms.
The Global Strategic Response was about putting forward a range of solutions and clearly delineating the role each of us has to play across jurisdictions and sectors. The time has come to galvanise our resources and tackle this scourge. As I told the Summit:
‘It is time that we set forth on a path that may prove to be a long and arduous journey. But it is a noble one, and so we must not be detoured from reaching our final destination – a world in which children are safe from child sexual abuse. Our children no longer can – or should be – the detritus that is left behind on those Internet roads paved in gold.’
The Global Strategic Response has six pillars, all of which stress the importance of collaboration, holistic policymaking, galvanising political will and placing the victim at the centre of everything we collectively do:
- In the area of policy and legislation, governments need to provide regulators and law enforcement with the consistent legislation, the resources and the international commitment to fight this battle forcefully.
- In criminal justice, we need the effective sharing of data, intelligence, advanced technology and best practice, from investigations, through to prosecution and victim support.
- Where victim support and empowerment are concerned, we must be mindful of the need to remove child sexual abuse material from the internet as expeditiously as possible — and to ensure that those who survive it have access to the therapeutic support they need.
- As technology continues to facilitate the proliferation of online child sexual abuse material, we too must anticipate the risks and harness the latest technologies in fighting the online paedophile networks — and critical here will be the principle of Safety by Design, as it has been championed by eSafety.
- Societal change is also needed in the fight against this form of child abuse, so that all communities will prioritise the demand for online safety, educators will develop culturally appropriate programs, and the media will know how to describe this crime and bring to it understanding rather than fear, while doing the critical work of reporting its prevalence.
- And finally, a strengthened evidence base is needed to inform prevention, education and rehabilitation initiatives, which is why research and insight are so important.
Lighting the road ahead
This is the first time a strategic global response to online child sexual abuse has been so clearly defined. The test will be in the practical actions that now follow — and we must do all that we can to get ahead of these issues, lest they spiral out of control.. As I told the Summit in closing:
‘The more we can learn from each other, the more effective our response will be.
‘When I began working in the tech industry twenty-five years ago, we had a vision for the internet that was empowering and liberating for all. Levelling the playing field. Democratising speech. Speaking truth to power. But somehow, we have allowed so much darkness to encroach upon that optimistic vision.
‘Back then we called the Internet the “information superhighway”, but it is no longer a highway that any of us can drive safely. Like the great Roman roads that criss-crossed Europe several millennia ago, the internet continues to direct our movements, but is no longer fit for purpose. It needs stronger safety barriers, clear dividing lines, different lanes for different kinds of travellers, and much better lighting to guide all users safely on their way.’