Today is Safer Internet Day. As child abuse increasingly takes on an online dimension, it’s especially important that this year’s international Safer Internet Day is drawing particular attention to the online safety of children and young people.
I’m writing from the Netherlands, where we have recently been confronted with some horrific examples of online sexual exploitation and abuse of children. A recent “sextortion” case in the country involved more than a hundred girls. Online child abuse is now the most common form of sexual violence among 16 and 17 years in the Netherlands. In 2021, 85 million images and videos of child sexual abuse were reported worldwide, with 62% of this material originating in Europe.
This has to stop. We have to do more to keep children and young people safe online.
In the past, it has largely been down to voluntary action taken by technology platforms. Detection techniques are already in use, but due to a lack of transparency and sufficient regulations, their presence and the ways in which they are employed are not immediately clear to everyone. As a result, there has been little evaluation or criticism of their use, and the balancing of addressing the issue of online child abuse against everybody’s fundamental rights to privacy online has been left to individual companies to determine.
Here in the Netherlands, 72% of the public believes that the European Union itself must take action and must develop appropriate legislation around this heinous form of child abuse. According to research carried out among 9,000 European citizens, from seven other countries as well as the Netherlands, around 78% of the public are willing to give up some of their personal online privacy so that images of sexual abuse can be identified and properly investigated.
The message is abundantly clear: EU citizens want the EU to take action to better protect children and young people online, and the EU indeed wants to introduce proper regulations and new legislation. A proposed new bill imposes strict rules and procedures for the use of detection technologies, which also ensure that online privacy can be respected and protected.
Today is Safer Internet Day. It is a very appropriate occasion on which to reiterate this call for support for new legislation in the EU: legislation that obliges online service providers to take a proactive and regulated approach to online child abuse; legislation that can truly offer children and young people a safer internet.
Child Helpline International fully supports this proposed legislation, and we want to see it passed and implemented throughout the EU to ensure a harmonized protection of children across all 27 Member States. This needs to happen quickly; before the European Parliament goes into recess, before the 2024 European Parliament elections, and before the composition of a new European Commission. A change in EU stakeholders might mean delays in adoption or blockages of the proposed legislation. We also want to ensure the EC acknowledges the hugely important role that child helplines play in reporting child sexual abuse material and responding to its victims, with this role being formally enshrined in any such legislation. And finally, perhaps most importantly, if this legislation is adopted, it will create a positive precedent for other countries around the world to follow through with similar legislation.
Today is Safer Internet Day. The internet should also be safer tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that…
It is now time that we all work together to make the internet a safer and better place, but especially so for children and young people.
Director of Operations