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Why We Need International Action to End Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Ending online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) is one of the most pressing issues of our time, yet key challenges remain in both preventing and prosecuting the practice. The scope and scale of the internet and digital connectivity and increasingly affordable access to camera-ready technology, coupled with gendered notions of male entitlement and the intensification of misogyny online, has enabled online sexual harms to occur at unprecedented levels around the world. 

The ongoing COVID19 pandemic has added additional urgency to develop solutions as people, including adolescents and children, are spending increasing amounts of time online. 

A Call for International Standards 

Following the November 2021 publication of Equality Now’s report Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards, Equality Now and the Thomson Reuters Foundation hosted a panel discussion featuring experts from the international community, governments, and survivor advocacy organizations to discuss the publication’s findings and a feminist framework for change.

Amanda Manyame, Digital Rights and Law Advisor at Equality Now, began the discussion by sharing the key findings from Equality Now’s report, namely:

  • There is no single internationally binding legal instrument that defines OSEA and the range of harms and offenses that it includes. This patchwork approach of legislation and standards make it difficult for survivors to get justice and legal recourse.
  • Most existing laws pre-date technological advances and the new and evolving ways in which online harms are perpetrated. 
  • There are tensions between digital rights and freedoms (namely freedom of expression and the right to privacy) and the right to protection and safety against OSEA.
  • Very few countries have specific laws that impose legal liability and accountability on technology companies for their role in enabling OSEA or mandating their response to OSEA on their platforms. This has largely left technology companies to self-moderate, resulting in opacity and insufficient remedies for victims.

Complex Crimes Require International Solutions

With the internet being unevenly regulated across different countries, users rely on companies’ voluntary standards and practices. Paige Morrow, Legal Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, reiterated the critical need for international cooperation in tackling OSEA, emphasizing that the complexity of online crimes makes it incredibly difficult for countries to prevent on their own. 

As an example, she highlighted the issue of distinguishing between primary and secondary perpetrators when content is posted and then re-shared. She explained that “meeting the requisite burden of proof within the national criminal justice system can be quite challenging and this is an area where ongoing cooperation and sharing of best practices could be quite useful.”

The difficulty in apprehending perpetrators, even when there are national laws in place to protect victims from OSEA, was further illustrated by Dr. Debarati Halder, professor at the Parul Institute of Law and the founder of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling. 

In her experience working with victims of OSEA in India, she said, “Even though the laws are there, there have been cases reported where the police have basically stated that they have not been able to handle such cases because they are not able to find where the actual root cause is, that is they can’t find out who the actual perpetrator is.” 

This she explained was due to the international nature of digital crimes and the difficulty in ascertaining who and where a perpetrator is located even when a victim is protected by national laws. 

The Urgency of Now

Ms. Heather C. Fischer, Senior Advisor for Human Rights Crimes at Thomson Reuters Special Services, picked up on the timeliness of releasing such a report at this time, noting that “The COVID19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation significantly. Because of the pandemic children are digitally learning now and have more access to devices than ever before, which puts them at an increased risk to be lured and groomed by predators online.”  

She cited that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) saw a 106% increase in tips reported after the outbreak of COVID19 indicating a need to ramp up education and prevention initiatives. 

In addition to the global pandemic, Ms. Faith Kasiva, Secretary of Gender in the Kenya State Department for Gender emphasized that conversations about OSEA have become increasingly relevant “With progress being made to universal internet connectivity and usage, governments around the world, including Kenya, are increasingly acknowledging the serious threat of online sexual abuse and exploitation and as such governments have taken steps to introduce necessary legislation and preventive measures.” 

As countries in the Global South gain more reliable and equitable access to the internet, governments are also having to contend with the related harms that accompany a more ubiquitous digital landscape. 

Ms. Kasiva contributed “For us in Kenya, the report has done a very good job in analyzing legal gaps and loopholes that provide a great starting point for legal reforms for preventing online sexual abuse and exploitation.” And while good laws are a critical jumping-off point, she reiterated that these “must go hand in hand with implementation” if they are to be successful at curbing OSEA. 

In addition to the improved implementation of existing laws, Dr. Haldar also posited that better legal education is necessary. In addition to informing citizens of their rights, she proposed that law schools should develop a curriculum for their students on how to try cases of online sexual abuse and exploitation that is both gender-sensitive and trauma-informed. 

What Happens Next?

Ending online sexual abuse and exploitation is a mammoth task and one that requires creative, feminist, and collaborative solutions. As Tsitsi Matekaire, Equality Now’s Lead for Ending Sexual Exploitation, explains “When addressing complex problems it is critical to take an ‘eco-systems approach’ and engage with as many actors as possible.” This includes grappling with debates on how to balance privacy and freedom of expression with the rights to digital safety and freedom from discrimination as well as better understanding the root causes of vulnerability and exploitation. 

While there are no simple nor “one-size-fits-all” solutions to ending OSEA, this discussion and Equality Now’s latest report has demonstrated that there are clear and tangible steps that should be taken to tackle digital abuse and misogyny. Namely: 

  1. International cooperation. This includes, but is not limited to, establishing internationally binding laws and standards  that defines OSEA, improved data collection and data sharing, information sharing between law enforcement, and coordinated reporting mechanisms.
  2. Increased transparency of tech companies. Digital service providers have largely been allowed to police themselves which leads to a lack of accountability. Tech companies must disclose their methods for monitoring and removing content so journalists, experts, and individuals can provide feedback 
  3. Up-to-date research and analysis. It is impossible to stop what you don’t fully understand, thus reliable, disaggregated and regularly updated research and data is critical to ending OSEA. 
  4. Intersectional analysis. Marginalized communities are at greater risk of online abuse and exploitation. OSEA prevention must take into account the unique risks faced by adolescents; women of color; members of the LGBTI community; those facing economic insecurity; refugees, immigrants, and internally displaced peoples; and indigenous women and girls. 

We all have a part to play in ending online sexual abuse and exploitation and dismantling a culture of digital misogyny. We invite you to share these resources and to reach out to us if you would like to collaborate on this work.