Child exploitation

Young and connected: An analysis of the new General Comment on children’s rights in the digital environment

The internet and new digital technologies have completely revolutionised our world, the way we work, the way we connect and the information we are exposed to.

With regards to fighting crime, technology has made some extremely positive contributions. It has allowed us to map criminal networks and gather intelligence more efficiently. It has even allowed us to map violations of international human rights and humanitarian law from a distance through video verification and geolocation. It has also contributed, through projects such as CESIUM, to the early identification of children vulnerable to exploitation, projects such as Project Arachnid, to the identification of images of abuse and project “Sweetie,” a virtual girl designed to find and communicate with sexual offenders online.

Technology, however, has also had adverse effects. Social media has enabled offenders to anonymously interact with potential victims. In 2020, Facebook reported a staggering 20 million child sexual abuse images. Technology has also permitted offenders to collect images of abuse, share and profit off these without being detected. The scale of the issue is terrifying, INTERPOL’s Child Sexual Exploitation database contains 2.7 million images and videos of children but there are likely many more on the dark net that remain undetected.

Against this background, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s new General Comment 25 on children’s rights in the digital environment is a welcome addition and one that the sector has been calling on for quite some time. This General Comment, engaged with 709 children from diverse backgrounds in 28 countries. This engagement is admirable as it directly includes the voices of those most affected, ensuring the right issues are dealt with and the right solutions and processes are identified.

The General Comment is incredibly comprehensive, it acknowledges the contribution the digital environment has had to children’s lives, including their education, development and in some cases their survival. It also acknowledges the damages it can make to their rights, and notes that these effects are wide-ranging and interdependent. Most importantly, it acknowledges the additional complications in investigating and prosecuting crimes committed in the digital environment, which often occur across national borders.

Of particular interest is the section on children’s rights and business. The General Comment calls on states to take responsibility for its businesses, it states: ‘businesses should respect children’s rights and prevent and remedy abuse of their rights in relation to the digital environment. States parties have the obligation to ensure that businesses meet those responsibilities.’ It also mentions the need for businesses to carry out child impact assessments.

As large businesses such as Facebook have started to dominate the digital environment this is a notable and incredibly important inclusion. Particularly as businesses have become increasingly linked to exploitation. In fact, The Internet Watch Foundation found that adverts for well-known brands, were appearing on sites hosting child abuse material. Pornhub was also accused of monetising child sexual abuse and exploitation, with the site showing more than 100,000 videos when searching for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” amongst its videos. However, Pornhub escaped all responsibility.

It is clear that online sexual abuse and exploitation is a global issue that needs a global response in which every individual, organisation and business has a role to play.

There is a long way to go in fighting online child sexual exploitation but this General Comment alongside the creation of projects such as project CESIUM, gives us hope for the future.

Olivia Iannelli

Olivia Iannelli is Senior Research Analyst at Trilateral Research.

Jon Betts

Jon Betts is Practice Manager – Public Sector at Trilateral Research.

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