Congress can disrupt the spread of online child sexual abuse | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

As Congress determines a path forward for government spending in this new fiscal year, it is past time for lawmakers to take decisive action to address the crisis of online sexual exploitation of children. 

In 2022 alone, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation — of those, nearly 90 percent resolved to a location outside the U.S. This is a global crime, often with demand-side offenders in one country and victims in another. 

At an alarming scale, child sex offenders around the world seek out traffickers online in countries like the Philippines, paying them to livestream the sexual abuse and exploitation of children as directed by these predators in real time. 

According to a recent study from International Justice Mission, where I am director of U.S. congressional affairs, and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, nearly half a million Filipino children — 1 in 100 — were sexually abused by adults in 2022 to create new child sexual exploitation material. The study also found that nearly a quarter of a million adult Filipinos — roughly 3 in every 1,000 — were involved in the financially motivated production of these materials.  

Numerous other accounts – as reported by The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and The Guardian; all within the last 10 months – have confirmed that the existing legal framework in the U.S. that governs the internet is failing to protect vulnerable children.  

In February, President Biden argued in his State of the Union address that bipartisan legislation is necessary to regulate the technology sector. He encouraged regulation of the tech sector, including antitrust enforcement, bans on collecting personal data from minors and other measures for the safety of children online. 

Tougher laws and greater incentives for technology companies to address this issue are critical needs. We can no longer allow individual companies’ internal policy decisions regarding whether or how they will address child sexual abuse on their platforms to be the last word.

The 118th Congress must work together across party lines to address this topic urgently and effectively. The bipartisan EARN IT Act would strengthen reporting requirements for child sexual abuse material and establish clear specifications about what information should be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, if an online provider identifies suspected abuse on their platform. 

EARN IT would create a national commission of experts with diverse experience to establish best practices for prevention — survivors, government officials, technical experts, data privacy and civil rights leaders all present at the same table to determine a way forward. The bill would also amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to clarify that the protections of that statute should not apply to violations of laws pertaining to child sexual exploitation. America and the world need these changes. 

Despite privacy-related objections to EARN IT, we must prioritize the safety and well-being of survivors. The bill will protect current or future victims whose previous abuse continues to circulate, unchecked, in online predator communities around the world. These images memorialize the most painful and dehumanizing moments of someone’s life. Survivors are entitled to have them detected, reported and removed from illegal circulation.  

EARN IT’s critics fear a hypothetical future risk while dismissing a very real, current and widespread harm. Untold numbers of vulnerable children and now-adult victims are being abused, exploited and victimized by the continued production, possession and distribution of their sexual abuse online — right now. 

In fact, due to uneven detection and reporting across the technology industry, policymakers and consumers do not actually know how many children are sexually abused around the world to produce child sexual exploitation material. Nor do they know how many of these incidents are produced and shared online. But we do know from our research that hundreds of thousands of Filipino children were victimized to achieve these ends.

We are at a crisis point, and we must find a way to strike a balance between user privacy and safeguarding children on publicly used internet platforms. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), wrote earlier this year that several proposed bills to address these crimes, including EARN IT, “balance the need to protect free speech and the need to protect children from harm” and reject “the current state of affairs, where social media companies make vast fortunes with the help of legal loopholes while children suffer.”

Concerned citizens should call on lawmakers to ensure the U.S. government upholds legal requirements that address online sexual exploitation material. Existing laws need to be updated to improve the quality of the reports sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline. Congress should also enact this legislation incentivizing companies to detect, report and remove abusive material from their platforms, including livestreamed exploitation. 

During a September House Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue, Vanessa Bautista, a founding member of the Global Survivor Network who experienced child sexual abuse in the Philippines, put it plainly: “Even as we speak today, there are children that are being exploited … we have to do something, and we have to do it right now.” 

Washington has held hearing after hearing on these issues, but little has happened in the way of meaningful reform. We must urgently enact legislation that motivates technology companies to do more to disrupt child exploitation on their platforms. We need laws that hold stakeholders accountable. 

American lawmakers can and must pass the EARN IT Act. The status quo is not acceptable. 

Nate King serves as director of U.S. congressional affairs for the International Justice Mission. IJM is a global non-governmental organization whose mission is to protect people in poverty from violence. 

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