Author : Anirban Sarma

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 20, 2022 Updated 29 Days ago
Australia’s efforts to fight the surge in online child sexual abuse and exploitation during the pandemic could act as an exemplar for other nations.
Australia: Demonstrating leadership in the space of online child safety

Around the world, cases of online child sexual abuse and exploitation (OCSAE) have skyrocketed since the COVID pandemic began. The European Union (EU), the US and India, for instance, have all reported dramatic spikes in the sharing of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) and online grooming activities through much of 2020 and 2021. The UK-based watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation, declared 2021 as the worst year on record for OCSAE.

Australia too witnessed an unprecedented increase in the circulation and consumption of online illegal content—the bulk of it consisting of CSAM. Reportedly, the massive demand for CSAM in Australia during the pandemic and the high volume of traffic to websites hosting such content caused many of them to crash.

According to a survey in 2021, two out of three people in Australia reported experiencing online sexual harm before turning 18, a rate higher than most other regions in the world. Australian experts have drawn attention to the “perfect storm of conditions with more young people online than ever before and more apps and platforms available”.

Australia’s stance online child safety

Historically, Australia has championed the cause of child safety. It was amongst the earliest countries to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1990, and in 2002, it adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the CRC which further strengthens the CRC’s provisions for online and offline against children.

Australian experts have drawn attention to the “perfect storm of conditions with more young people online than ever before and more apps and platforms available”.

Stringent legal frameworks have been developed at both federal and state levels to protect children online. Australia’s Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act (2015) has been the main instrument for countering a range of online harms for children. Divisions 273 and 274 of Australia’s Criminal Code criminalise the production and distribution of CSAM, and the country has also introduced legal measures to deal with online grooming. Besides, at the state and territory level, laws such as the Children and Young People Act (2008), Crimes (Child Sex Offenders) Act (2005), Care and Protection of Children Act (2007) and Child Protection Act (1999) all address offences that are now interpreted as being applicable to cyberspace.

The 2020 Child Online Safety Index (COSI), a survey of 30 countries conducted during the first year of the pandemic, ranked Australia second (after Spain) for having the “best online safety for children”. According to the SEON Global Cyber-Safety Index 2020, however, Australia ranks eighth in terms of overall cyber-safety (including the online safety of adults and the cybersecurity of businesses, governments and critical infrastructure). This appears to indicate that Australia has been able to tackle cybercrimes against children more effectively than cybercrime in general.

Tackling OCSAE during the pandemic 

Australia has responded to the increase in OCSAE since 2020 in three ways. First, it has enacted a farsighted new law, the Online Safety Act of 2021 that strengthens existing measures for promoting online safety. Second, it has launched a National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse (2021–30) that involves a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Third, it is engaging with school systems, sensitising students, parents and educators about OCSAE and other online risks; and continuing to train law enforcement officers to address these risks.

  • Enabling safer digital environments through the Online Safety Act, 2021

The primary aim of the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act of 2015 was to identify and remove online child cyber-bullying material, and enforce measures to make the social media a safer space for children. Australia’s new Online Safety Act (2021) builds on these ideas, includes all citizens under its ambit, and demands a high level of private sector compliance and cooperation to ensure online safety. It also gives the Australian eSafety Commissioner (also referred to as “eSafety”) new powers to require Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to CSAM, and to regulate illegal and restricted content.

With eSafety asserting that it will prioritise the investigation of complaints about CSAM, OSPs with Australian end users are under pressure to revise their safety procedures and align them with the requirements of the BOSE, and the Act in general.

A major focus of the new Act is to make online service providers (OSPs) more accountable for user safety. It lays down a set of “Basic Online Safety Expectations” (BOSE) to ensure user safety and to compel service providers to proactively tackle online harms like OCSAE. Service providers are now required to prevent access to CSAM, and create easily understood mechanisms for users to lodge complaints. Furthermore, the online industry must mandatorily develop codes to detect and remove illegal content such as CSAM, failing which eSafety could impose industry-wide standards forcing them to do so. With eSafety asserting that it will prioritise the investigation of complaints about CSAM, OSPs with Australian end users are under pressure to revise their safety procedures and align them with the requirements of the BOSE, and the Act in general.

Broadly, since pre-pandemic times, Australian efforts to promote online child safety have sought to place a stronger onus on tech firms to act transparently and responsibly, and the Online Safety Act is consistent with that approach. The Act has for the most part been well received within Australia, and is being positioned as a mechanism that “places Australia at the international forefront in the fight against online abuse and harm”.

  • Launching a National Strategy and an Online Safety Youth Advisory Council

Parallel to the institution of the Online Safety Act in 2021, the Australian state and territory governments have co-developed a National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse, 2021–30 (NSPRCSA). The Strategy is being envisaged as a holistic “nationally coordinated strategic framework” to address child sexual abuse. With online child safety as a pillar, the Strategy – in which the government is expected to invest over AUD 307 million – will be implemented systematically across Australia through an action plan that will run from 2021–24 in the first instance. Nearly one-fifth of the total outlay will be allocated for initiatives to be implemented directly by the Australian Federal Police to combat OCSAE by boosting its human and technological capacities. As the potential generator of a second layer of preventive action beyond the Online Safety Act, the Strategy is expected to play a key part in curbing OCSAE in Australia over the coming decade.

Additionally, in a bid to include children as equal partners in the fight against OCSAE, the Australian government is instituting an Online Safety Youth Advisory Council. The Council will consist of around 20 Australians ranging from 13 to 24 years of age, and will provide feedback to the government about online safety issues and measures to counter cyber-harms. This mechanism will be an important adjunct to the National Strategy, and will integrate at-risk stakeholders into the national decision-making process.

  • Sensitising stakeholders and building capacity

Besides passing its new legislation and beginning to roll out its comprehensive National Strategy, during the pandemic Australia has continued its pre-existing efforts to sensitise stakeholders and build their capacity to combat OCSAE.

The Council will consist of around 20 Australians ranging from 13 to 24 years of age, and will provide feedback to the government about online safety issues and measures to counter cyber-harms.

eSafety has consistently engaged with Australian school systems to promote a variety of information resources that target students, educators and parents. Its School Community Engagement Plan has been in operation since February 2020, and the Plan has utilised the eSafety Toolkit for Schools to raise mass awareness about online risks including OCSAE, and mechanisms for reporting online crimes against children. Moreover, a second front for sensitisation has been provided by the Australian Federal Police, whose ThinkUKnow programme provides resources for parents and carers to help prevent OCSAE.

Finally, the capacity development of law enforcement agencies themselves has continued to be an important focus area. This is necessary. As a recent survey has shown, Australian police officers perceive “child abuse material and the sexual solicitation of children” as the second most serious type of criminal offence (out of a list of 27), second only to “physical terrorist attacks”.

The road ahead 

The Australian approach to OCSAE prevention during the pandemic has centred on the proactive enactment of new legislation and upstream policy engagement, designed both to trigger immediate change and to work towards the implementation of long-term national strategies.

Even as this approach begins to yield positive outcomes, disturbing new trends are emerging. In September 2022, for the first time, Australia’s police agencies delivered a combined warning about a disturbing online sextortion trend targeting young Australians. Investigators and police officials have warned that overseas offenders are increasingly preying on Australian children, coercing them into the production of explicit images, and extorting money from them.

Working together, governments, civil society, and private actors could play a steering role in evolving stronger child protection systems, deterring offenders, promoting ‘child-safe cultures’, empowering victims and survivors, and improving Australia’s evidence base on OCSAE.

There is an abiding need to continue translating Australia’s anti-OCSAE legal and programmatic frameworks into effective actions. The new Online Safety Act presents a unique opportunity to enforce private sector cooperation in the war against CSAM. Other laws that aim to criminalise offences related to OCSAE must be strengthened as well. The NSPRCSA and its constituent National Action Plans are visionary in approach. Working together, governments, civil society, and private actors could play a steering role in evolving stronger child protection systems, deterring offenders, promoting ‘child-safe cultures’, empowering victims and survivors, and improving Australia’s evidence base on OCSAE.

Finally, given the often borderless nature of cybercrimes against children, Australia should continue to look outward to build cyber-partnerships that could bolster domestic efforts and strengthen international capacity to counter OCSAE. This is an area in which the country has already demonstrated leadership in terms of technical expertise and advocacy. In 2021 alone, Australia entered into online-child-safety-related bilateral agreements with South Korea and Fiji; and it has been an active governmental member of the WeProtect Global Alliance. Going forward, initiatives like these must be sustained, expanded, and vigorously promoted.

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Author

Anirban Sarma

Anirban Sarma

Anirban Sarma is Deputy Director of ORF Kolkata and a Senior Fellow at ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy. He is also Chair of the ...

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