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National and international laws are failing to protect women and girls from online sexual exploitation and abuse

USA, New York, Nov 15, 2021 – Online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) of women and girls is increasing at an alarming rate globally, but national and international laws are failing to effectively address the challenge because they are not keeping pace with advancing technology. The current patchwork of laws doesn’t give adequate protection, and regulations on digital service providers and platforms are inconsistent, meaning not enough is being done to keep people safe online, finds a new report examining OSEA laws globally. 

“Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards” is a ground-breaking new report by international women’s rights organization Equality Now, produced with legal research assistance from TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service.

In light of mounting calls for greater regulation of social media platforms, this timely research gives a global overview of laws surrounding OSEA at the international and regional level and scrutinizes national laws in India, Kenya, Nigeria, the USA, and the UK (England and Wales). Gaps in laws and protections are identified and recommendations provided for the international community, governments, and digital service providers and platforms.  

OSEA encompasses online grooming; live-streaming of sexual abuse; child sexual abuse material (CSAM); online sexual coercion and extortion; online sex trafficking; and image-based sexual abuse. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the global expansion of inexpensive, high-speed internet and increased access to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, has resulted in an unprecedented number of people going online, and for longer time periods. This has made it easier to locate, groom, and sexually exploit women and girls 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.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable as offenders take advantage of sex, gender, and structural discrimination, and the true scale of the problem is unknown because many cases go unreported.

Challenges highlighted in the report include:

  • Aspects of OSEA are addressed within the existing patchwork of international and national laws, but these do not adequately define OSEA or provide clear definitions of what constitutes “harmful content”, and commonly rely on community policing to identify perpetrators. 
  • Many laws pre-date important technological advances, such as camera-ready technology, and don’t adequately respond to the internet’s global and ever-evolving nature.
  • Inconsistencies internationally and nationally in definitions of OSEA, and the application of digital service providers’ and platforms’ terms and conditions for use, make it difficult to identify and prosecute perpetrators. 
  • Measures to prevent and detect OSEA have been mostly left to digital service providers and platforms because of the different contractual, criminal, and private law obligations placed on them in different countries. Consequently, there has been heavy reliance on voluntary measures implemented by digital service providers and platforms.  
  • There is an inherent tension between digital rights and freedoms and the right to protection and safety against OSEA.
  • Investigating and prosecuting OSEA is extremely challenging for law enforcement, partly because criminal activity is often not confined to one country or territory. Complex cases can involve multiple offenders and/or victims, various platforms, in different countries. 

OSEA requires coordinated responses from the international community

Given that the internet is borderless and OSEA is global, gendered, and multi-dimensional, a global legal framework to address OSEA is required to provide standard definitions and laws for adoption, both internationally and nationally. National efforts, including laws, must be supported by strong interconnected international efforts.

To holistically address OSEA, the report calls for:

Governments to:

  • Review and update legislation and policies to fully protect people from OSEA;
  • Enact laws that clarify the role and responsibility of digital service providers in protecting users on their platforms; 
  • Strengthen national capacity to address OSEA;
  • Collaborate with other key stakeholders including civil society organisations and digital service providers.

The international community to: 

  • Develop and adopt binding international standards;
  • Review and update international and regional laws and instruments to ensure they align to the reality of the digital age;
  • Conduct up-to-date research and analysis on OSEA;
  • Adopt legally binding standards that clarify the role, responsibility and accountability of digital service providers and platforms, in preventing, detecting and reporting OSEA on their platforms.

Digital service providers to:

  • Apply a human rights approach in policies and practices to protect users from harm;
  • Collaborate with other stakeholders, including law enforcement, civil society organisations, and governments.

Tsitsi Matekaire, Global Lead for Equality Now’s End Sexual Exploitation program and a lead author on the report, explains: 

“Online sexual exploitation and abuse is harming women and girls in every country and is growing at an alarming rate. To tackle ongoing advances in technology and cybercrime in the digital age, there is an urgent need to update national, regional and international laws to protect all at risk and punish offenders, regardless of where they are.”

“We need comprehensive laws that hold digital service provides legally accountable for sexual abuse and exploitation on their platforms. Governments must also ensure law enforcement agencies have enough expertise and resources to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes effectively.”

Carolina Henriquez- Schmitz, Director of TrustLaw, says:

“Online sexual exploitation and abuse is a pressing global human rights issue in a rapidly changing digital world. TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, is proud to have worked with Equality Now to facilitate the pro bono legal research provided by our law firm members which led to the development of this important report.”