Shadow pandemic of child sexual exploitation requires concerted global effort

There are few issues which spark the same visceral anger and shock in the community quite like the sexual exploitation of children online. 

Despite this fact, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve experienced a veritable tsunami of this shocking material washing across the internet. 

While some of this abhorrent material depicts the sexual abuse and torture of young children, we’re increasingly seeing sexual exploitation material of tweens in their bedrooms and bathrooms, with their parents voices heard in the next room. This is often coerced remotely and screen captured – or “capped” – by predators and used as a form of sexual extortion.

Of added concern is the fact this content is no longer just confined to dark underground corners of the web, but is starting to be found hiding in plain sight on mainstream platforms most of us use every day. 

In 2021, the global INHOPE network of reporting hotlines identified almost one million URLs of potential abuse material. Reports to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner about online abuse material increased by 129% during COVID lockdowns in 2020. By the end of 2021, reports remained at levels almost double the pre-COVID rate. 

This is a global problem, demanding a global response. In the front rank of this response is the WePROTECT Global Alliance – an international partnership of governments, companies and civil society working in concert to end child exploitation and abuse online. 

The global effort is in many ways is an aggregate of the local, where domestic laws and frameworks are engaged to enhance enforcement outcomes, support victims and galvanise political will. 

On 2 June, WePROTECT is releasing its Framing the Future report, an analysis of how the Alliance’s Model National Response framework supports national efforts to end abuse online in 42 countries. 

The results are encouraging: all 42 nations have a law enforcement capability in place, 95% operate child helplines, and 88% employ specialist judges and prosecutors. As Australia’s regulator for harmful online material, it is reassuring that almost three-quarters of countries surveyed have procedures to remove or block child sexual exploitation material (CSEM). 

In Australia, we have a long history of tackling CSEM head on. In the late 1990s the Australian Government created our first regulatory scheme to take down prohibited material like CSEM that was hosted locally. Co-regulatory codes of practice clarified the responsibilities of the internet industry, including child safety issues.

Our Commonwealth Criminal Code obliges ISPs and hosting services to notify the Australian Federal Police when their services are used to access child abuse material. As a result, Australia is no safe haven for the hosting of CSEM – a result we can be very proud of. 

Earlier this year, another major reform commenced. The new Online Safety Act 2021 expands eSafety’s removal powers so we can combat illegal content wherever it is provided or hosted. If a removal order is ignored, we can compel search engine providers to de-index CSEM links. In the most serious of cases, we can order removal of apps from app stores if they are distributing CSEM. 

eSafety also has new levers to require industry to do more to keep users safer online.

Mandatory industry codes are being developed across eight digital sectors, including social media providers, hosting services and website providers. Under the codes, services will be expected to take strong steps to prevent access to CSEM and to protect younger users from grooming and exploitation.

The codes are reinforced by new Basic Online Safety Expectations, allowing eSafety to require reports from service providers about how they are keeping users safe – including their efforts to prevent CSEM. 
Worldwide, there remains much work to do.
As a member of WePROTECT’s Board, I applaud the sustained commitment given to this issue by so many governments and companies around the world. But more is always needed, including greater investment nationally, enhanced global cooperation and better information-sharing. 

While we have come a long way in the five and a half years since I took up the mantle of eSafety Commissioner, this harm is profound and ever evolving. Our responses – globally and nationally – must be concerted, decisive and bold. 

Julie Inman Grant is Australia's eSafety Commissioner and a board member of the WePROTECT Global Alliance. This blogpost was also published in the opinion pages of The Sunday Telegraph newspaper.