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Public Safety & Security

Ending Online Sexual Exploitation & Abuse: Finding ways forward

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

An online panel offered workable solutions for addressing the scourge of online sexual exploitation & abuse described in a new report from Equality Now

Of all the social ills the internet has spawned, perhaps the most noxious is the one that gives predators and opportunists the means to sexually abuse and exploit children and women around the world, from anywhere in the world, without much fear of being caught, much less prosecuted or imprisoned.

To help combat this scourge and offer practical solutions for addressing it, the international human rights organization Equality Now released a report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards, produced in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Upon the report’s release, an online panel of human rights experts gathered to discuss the report’s findings and offer suggestions for moving forward.

A growing problem

“Safeguarding women and girls from online exploitation is more important than ever before,” explained panelist Heather Fischer, senior advisor for human rights crimes for Thomson Reuters Special Services. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation significantly, because children are digitally learning now and have more access to devices than ever before — so that’s put them at an increased risk to be lured and groomed by predators online.”

According to Fischer, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 17 million reports of child sexual abuse last year on its cyber tip hotline, and the number of reports to NCMEC has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. No one knows the true extent of the problem, however, because so many cases go unreported.

Equality Now’s report defines online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) as a multitude of offenses enabled by digital technologies, including live-streaming of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse material (e.g., photos and video), online sexual coercion and extortion, sex trafficking, and online grooming and recruiting. In many cases, the motive for such crimes is profit, not sexual gratification.

Gaps in the law

Identifying, arresting, and prosecuting online sexual offenders is difficult, however, and in many countries, it is almost impossible, the panel noted.

“There is no single internationally binding instrument that specifically defines OSEA,” said panelist Dr. Debarati Halder, a cyber victim counselor and legal scholar, adding that there are very few legal mechanisms available for pursuing perpetrators across international borders, and laws regulating tech companies and technology have yet to adequately address the grim reality of OSEA. All of which “makes obtaining legal recourse extremely challenging,” she said.

In her home country of India, Dr. Halder described how, despite existing laws to prevent OSEA, women who report online sexual crimes to the police aren’t always taken seriously. And even if they are, the police aren’t trained in cybercrime and don’t have the resources or technological ability to locate the perpetrators.

In Kenya, one of the other countries highlighted in the Equality Now report, the government has passed numerous laws addressing various facets of OSEA, but “there are gaps in existing law,” explained panelist Faith Kasiva, Secretary: Gender in the Kenya State Department for Gender. Defining and addressing the different kinds of OSEA is one area of concern, Kasiva said, as is “awareness and training” of police officers, lawyers, and other officials — not only in Kenya, but around the world.

The role of technology & money

Another complicating factor lies at the intersection of privacy rights, freedom of expression, censorship, and the responsibilities tech companies have to balance these competing social demands. For example, any attempt to moderate or restrict content on the internet runs headlong into a competing need to preserve freedom of expression, so such efforts must be undertaken with extreme care.

According to panelist Paige Morrow, Legal Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, when it comes to content moderation on the internet, “what we’re talking about is a very wide range of content on different devices — gaming systems, public social media, private messaging systems — and in each of those case the responses need to be slightly different.”

Offering girls and women a broader range of social media tools could be one way to mitigate the influence of dominant social media platforms, Morrow said. “There are some very interesting initiatives to put forward alternative forms of content moderation on social media, which would give women and girls more control to create safe spaces for themselves and decide what content they’d like to see.”

Thomson Reuters’ Fischer offered several recommendations for addressing technology’s role in OSEA. In addition to educating parents and caregivers about how to spot signs of OSEA and deal with online safety for their children (preferably in collaboration with tech companies themselves), Fischer says manufacturers of phones, computers and gaming devices could easily create “protection by default, or safety by design” by making the default factory setting on any given device more kid-friendly. Tech companies themselves could also adapt the capabilities they’ve developed for identifying disinformation to better detecting sexual exploitation and abuse materials, she added.

None of these efforts will be sufficient, however, if the financial services industry doesn’t step up to do its fair share, she said. “The reality is that if we want to end online sexual exploitation, we need to follow the money back to the offenders. And that means we need forensic accountants, analysts, and others to lend us their expertise.

“We will not arrest our way out of this problem,” Fischer insisted. “We must have financial institutions involved to make real progress.”

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