Skip to main content

What is the problem?

Online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA), which encompasses a number of sexually exploitative and harmful behaviors that occur online – including online grooming, livestreaming of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), online sexual coercion and extortion, online sex trafficking, and image-based sexual abuse – is growing at an alarming pace globally.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable as offenders take advantage of the sex, gender, and structural discrimination inherent in our patriarchal society, and the economic inequality that makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Technological advancements and the internet have also made it easier to groom, recruit and sexually exploit with impunity. Predators are increasingly using social media and online gaming platforms to target potential victims because these platforms offer anonymity and operate under very limited regulation.

How does this impact women and girls?

OSEA can impact anyone, but women and adolescent girls are particularly targeted. As with any form of trauma, OSEA can have severe and long-lasting effects on survivors’ mental health and wellbeing. In addition, the threat of OSEA can limit women’s and girls’ ability to safely engage in common and necessary online activities such as learning and community participation, and can ultimately limit their very presence on the internet, further exacerbating existing sex, gender, and structural discrimination and inequality.

What does the law say?

Although there are many international laws and standards that provide for governments to address sexual exploitation and abuse as well as international laws and standards on violence against women and girls, there is no single internationally binding instrument that specifically defines and addresses OSEA. International and national legal instruments have simply not kept pace with the complex nature of the crime and the ever-changing digital landscape.

The lack of consistent legislation and internationally adopted laws pertaining to OSEA make obtaining legal recourse extremely challenging. Inherent tension exists between digital rights and freedoms and the right to protection and safety against OSEA. Regulations on digital service providers and platforms are inconsistent and often do not do enough to protect users against OSEA.

Balancing freedom of expression against safety and protection from OSEA

A well-functioning internet needs to be based on respect for users’ right to freedom of expression. Any restrictions on freedom of expression must be lawful and tailored as specifically as possible. The right to privacy is another pillar of a well-functioning internet. This right includes the protection of personal information and respect for the confidentiality of communications. Alongside the right to privacy and freedom of expression, everyone is entitled to protection from harm. In practice, tensions arise between these rights. Fundamental questions arise on how these competing rights should be balanced in law and practice. These issues also apply to digital service providers and platforms in how they detect and remove sexual abuse and exploitation content from their platforms.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides a framework for limiting freedom of expression to protect the rights and reputation of others, national security, and public order, health, and morals. These limited, permissible restrictions on freedom of expression can be found in many regional laws and national constitutions. The framework for limiting freedom of expression in these instances is commonly referred to as the proportionality test. To satisfy this test under the ICCPR framework, a restriction must be:

  • Legal, meaning the law is clear and unambiguous.
  • Legitimate, meaning it is designed to protect individual rights and public concerns.
  • Reasonable, meaning the restriction is necessary to protect legitimate rights but narrowly drawn to address the objective, meaning a fair balance is struck between protecting fundamental rights and the interests of the community

Many courts in various jurisdictions have applied the proportionality test to prohibitions on CSAM and some other forms of OSEA.

What needs to change?

OSEA is a global, gendered, and multi-dimensional problem that requires coordinated responses from the international community. National efforts, including laws, have to be supported by strong interconnected international efforts. The global response is critical to ensure adequate protection for all people everywhere. 

Action must be taken by regional and international bodies, national governments, and digital service providers and platforms:

  • The international community should develop and adopt legally binding international standards that provide for protection of all vulnerable people from all forms of OSEA. 
  • The international community should also review and update international and regional laws and instruments to ensure they are aligned to the reality of the digital age, and conduct up-to-date research and analysis on OSEA.
  • These laws should also clarify the role, responsibility, and accountability of digital service providers and platforms, in preventing, detecting, and reporting OSEA on their platforms. 
  • Governments should review and update legislation and policies to fully protect vulnerable people from OSEA, strengthen national capacity to address OSEA, and collaborate with other key stakeholders including civil society organisations and digital service providers.
  • Digital service providers and platforms should apply a human rights approach in policies and practices to protect users from harm, and collaborate with other key stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, civil society organisations, and governments

What is Equality Now doing?

Equality Now has published a report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards, that examines laws pertaining to OSEA at the international, regional, and national levels and how the lack of coordination between various jurisdictions impedes justice for victims.

In addition to advocating globally for the recommendations outlined above, we are bringing together key stakeholders including members of the international community, national governments, and digital service providers to share knowledge, learning, and best practices, and to work toward international legally binding standards that specifically define and address OSEA.