The Internet needs new rules; addressing online sexual exploitation should be a priority - Equality Now

The Internet needs new rules

Addressing online sexual exploitation should be a priority.

On Saturday, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg issued a call “to update [the] rules [of the Internet] to define clear responsibilities for people, companies, and governments going forward.” This is not the first time Zuckerberg has suggested that regulation of the Internet is necessary. We completely agree with him.

Zuckerberg states that there is a need for new global regulation in four key areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability. I would add one more key area to this list: online sexual exploitation.

The advancement and availability of technology and the internet have completely transformed the face of sex trafficking and of sexual exploitation, increasing the ease and ways that women and girls can be exploited. Online sexual exploitation, including online grooming, cyber sexual abuse, and sex trafficking, affects every country worldwide and is a multi-billion dollar industry.  In 2017, nearly 8% of active online federal sex trafficking cases prosecuted in the United States involved advertisements for sex on Facebook and nearly 845 potential trafficking victims in the US were recruited on Internet platforms in a two-year period. This type of sexual exploitation is happening across all internet platforms, not just Facebook.

In many countries legislation, law enforcement, and awareness have not been able to keep up with the negative impacts of the internet. In others, the threat has not been prioritized or there is an inability to invest in infrastructure or safeguards to protect girls. As Zuckerberg rightly acknowledges, technology companies have also not been able to effectively address the problem. The internet provides anonymity as well as very limited regulation which allows traffickers and other offenders to easily come into contact with potential victims. The increasing use of social media has also allowed for more opportunities for people to come into contact with offenders and has enabled offenders to anonymously interact with an increasing number of potential victims. Not only has the pool of potential victims expanded exponentially, so too has the pool of potential opportunistic offenders. There are excellent tools that exist to combat this issue and we know that Facebook and other technology platforms already use these tools, however, these tools often focus on child sexual abuse images and are not used to combat and address other forms of sexual exploitation or trafficking, leaving a gap in prevention, particularly for adolescent girls.

“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

We agree with Zuckerberg - there is a responsibility by Facebook and governments to come together and “define clear responsibilities for people, companies, and governments going forward.Technology companies, together with the government, survivors, and experts must come together to develop a practical solution to the problem of online sexual exploitation. The responsibility to address online sexual exploitation cannot and should not fall solely on tech companies. A common global framework - as opposed to 193 different regulations and standards - as Zuckerberg puts forward, will ensure not only “that everyone gets the same protections”, but that any solution is effective worldwide. That is why we at Equality Now believe in the importance of an international framework and standards addressing online sexual exploitation, perhaps in the form of a Global Compact, signed on to by both governments and tech companies.

Online sexual exploitation cannot be combated in a silo, it is a global concern requiring a global solution and must be supported by strong national response mechanisms. Furthermore, this scourge cannot be combated by politicians and advocacy organizations alone, technology companies and platforms, and survivors must all be present at the table. Only with their input and support can a global and effective solution be found.