This month, the UK’s Online Safety Bill will return to Parliament. The news can’t come soon enough for children and young people at risk from online harm and abuse
Online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) is the fastest-growing form of violence against children. Children worldwide are being groomed to share intimate images, coerced into performing explicit sexual acts and having images of their abuse shared online, all of which can cause devastating harm.
The importance of the UK Online Safety Bill
The scale of online CSEA is unprecedented, with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) processing, on average, 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online daily.1 The EU alone witnessed an increase of 5980% in reports of suspected child abuse material online between 2010 and 2020.2
During the past few weeks, there have been signs the Online Safety Bill will signify progress in areas such as non-consensual “deepfake” pornography and “down blousing” being made illegal. However, other aspects may be watered down or axed altogether. Measures that would have forced technology platforms to remove ‘legal but harmful’ materials, including content related to online bullying, self-harm, and spreading disinformation and misinformation.
The revised bill will primarily prevent those under 13 from accessing digital services and platforms. Aside from a lack of clarity on how platforms will be expected to implement this, the proposed measure raises a more fundamental issue of ‘age-gating’, which in effect, may deny children under 13 access to their digital rights. The online world is integral to children’s lives and a space where they can socialise, play and learn. The focus of age assurance should be on identifying the likelihood of a user being a child and then offering them meaningful, age-appropriate, and, most importantly, safe digital experiences instead of simply leaving them on the ‘outside’.
Age assurance techniques as a topic have surfaced as a key actionable area of focus at the intersection of child rights and industry priorities. It requires solutions to reimagine the current privacy and safety dichotomy. As part of our ongoing efforts to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse, the Safe Online Initiative will be launching an Open Call for proposals for innovative technology solutions for advancing understanding and applications around age assurance.
We welcome the return of the Online Safety Bill. But its original purpose – to address violence against women online – is at risk of being lost over fringe disagreements. This Bill is too important to become a casualty of the so-called "war on woke."https://t.co/UmhSackGiX
— Women's Equality Party (@WEP_UK) December 5, 2022
Keeping young people safe online
It’s vital proposed measures to keep young people safe from CSEA are prioritised as part of this bill, and the UK Government works in collaboration with global leaders and big tech companies to ensure enforcement.
Elsewhere in Europe, the EU has recently proposed legislation that will make it obligatory for tech companies to play a more proactive role in preventing and responding to online child sexual abuse. These legislations represent a welcome step forward and we hope it can provide a blueprint for other jurisdictions across the world. This proposal has also brought to the fore another issue: much more that needs to be done by societies and Governments to understand how technology is reshaping our children’s lives and how to keep them safe online.
Data is a critical part of this, and the need for reliable data and evidence of what works on a regional and global scale to keep children safe online is more urgent than ever. Last month the Safe Online Initiative partnered with the European Union Parliament and the WeProtect Global Alliance for a unique event, ‘Safe digital futures for children: data for change,’ which brought together expert speakers and global stakeholders to discuss the availability and quality of data related to CSEA and to identify gaps, solutions and opportunities for collaborative efforts.
Reliable data on the online abuse children experience
Without better, reliable data on what forms of online abuse children experience, who is more vulnerable, who the common offenders are, and if children know how to recognize and report online abuse, we lack evidence that can inform legislation, policy and programmatic action to help prevent and respond to online CSEA. This leaves millions of children vulnerable and without adequate care and support. Among the greatest challenges with data currently is the limited understanding we have of how national child protection systems are responding to the rapidly growing scale of the problem and whether national policies and practices are fit for the digital age.
One initiative funded by Safe Online addressing these knowledge gaps is Disrupting Harm, a ground-breaking large-scale research project capturing comprehensive data on online CSEA across 13 countries in Southern and Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia. The project has already provided vital new insights on online CSEA, including on perpetrators, revealing they’re likely to be someone the child already knows in person (on average accounting for 60% of cases)3 and also that peers or friends constitute a greater threat than previously thought. The success of the first phase of the project has led to a renewed $7 million commitment in 2022 and expansion in 11 countries across three new regions.
Committing nearly $80 million to online safety
The UK is already the biggest funder of the Safe Online Initiative at End Violence, having committed nearly $80 million. Funding is an essential part of the puzzle in tackling CSEA, but it means little without action, which is why this Bill represents such an important opportunity for the UK Government to take the lead and implement positive changes.
It may not be smooth sailing yet for the Bill as it returns to Parliament shortly, but we should not ignore the tremendous potential it offers to create a safe digital environment for children in the UK. It is a unique opportunity to set aside polarised opinions and work together constructively to include stronger protections to keep children safe from online harm.
- Data taken from Global Threat Assessment 2021
- Taken from Factsheet: Fighting child sexual abuse: Commission proposes new rules to protect children
- Data taken from Disrupting Harm report
This piece was written and provided by Marija Manojlovic, Director of the Safe Online Initiative