We must listen to survivors of online child sexual exploitation to strengthen protections in the Online Safety Bill
The Online Safety Bill presents a unique chance to tackle a range of significant online harms. Particularly careful attention, however, must be drawn to the most severe forms of online harm, such as the online sexual exploitation of children.
This is a dark and rapidly growing crime in which traffickers sexually abuse children around the world at the demand of sex offenders in countries like the UK, who in some cases pay to direct the abuse live over the internet.
The psychological and physical trauma caused to children is extreme: International Justice Mission, an organisation working with survivors of livestreamed exploitation in the Philippines, reports that survivors, many of whom are very young, are profoundly affected by the abuse. Many are even left with sexually transmitted diseases. On average, children are abused for two years before they are found.
Much livestreamed abuse currently goes undetected, making it harder for authorities to hold perpetrators accountable
According to former chief constable Simon Bailey, the UK currently ranks third in the world for demand for livestreamed abuse materials – and so the government has a responsibility to take action against it. I am determined that the Online Safety Bill should place the most robust possible measures on online platforms to ensure they play their part in detecting abuse and safeguarding children. Much livestreamed abuse currently goes undetected, making it harder for authorities to bring children to safety and hold perpetrators accountable.
We must prioritise proactive detection of newly-made materials, particularly livestreaming
The bill already proposes that if tech companies do not meet their duty of care, which would include detection and removal of child sexual abuse materials, then they are liable to fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of their annual turnover from Ofcom. Ofcom can also apply to have these services blocked from access in the UK. This is an important step, which will incentivise the action and innovation which is desperately needed to stop the abuse of children online.
However, the bill could be even stronger. We must prioritise proactive detection of newly-made materials, particularly livestreaming. It must also clearly include the risk of harm to children around the world caused by people in the UK, as this truly is a global issue. In the Philippines, which has been acknowledged as the global hotspot for the supply of livestreamed abuse materials, as many as one in five children between the ages of 12 and 17 were found to be victims of online sexual abuse in 2020 alone. The Covid-19 crisis has made even more children vulnerable – so we must not delay our response to this growing crime.
Survivors themselves are calling on the government to prioritise these new measures. In a briefing session for MPs I chaired this week, we heard from Ruby (pseudonym), who was just 16 when a trafficker sent her a private message on social media offering her a job in a computer shop. Ruby had recently lost both of her parents, so she was facing significant financial difficulties, and this sounded like a good opportunity. However, she became trapped inside her traffickers’ house by a guard, she was not allowed to go outside or return to her family – instead, she was forced to perform sexual acts for sex offenders live over the internet. She became so desperate to escape that she would shout whenever a police siren would go by, hoping to be heard. One day she tried to escape but was threatened with a knife.
Thankfully, Ruby was found and brought to safety by Philippine police, with support from International Justice Mission. Her traffickers were arrested, and ultimately sentenced to a fifteen-year prison term. Ruby experienced lasting trauma, including flashbacks, anxiety and depression – but courageously, she has chosen to raise her voice and advocate for greater protection for children.
She is now sharing her experiences with MPs, so that we understand the true nature of harm caused to children and strengthen the bill accordingly. It is essential that survivors like Ruby are included in the process of shaping legislation, to make sure protections are as effective as possible.
At this critical juncture for online safety in the UK, I urge the government to listen to the guidance of survivors and to implement the strongest possible measures to make sure the UK takes the lead in protecting children around the world. We have a unique opportunity to safeguard vulnerable children and must not let it pass.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham.
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