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Stop online child exploitation    

15 October 2021

A new Bill needs stronger measures to protect the vulnerable, says David Westlake


“Ruby”, a survivor of online child exploitation, who the International Justice Mission helped to bring to safety

“Ruby”, a survivor of online child exploitation, who the International Justice Mission helped to bring to safety

RUBY* was just 15 when her traffickers began to abuse her, so that sex offenders around the world could watch live over the internet. Trapped inside her traffickers’ house by a guard, she was not allowed to go outside — let alone go to school, or to go home to see her family. She had been tricked into coming to the house by the promise of a job in an internet café, which had sounded like a perfect opportunity, particularly as the loss of her parents had left Ruby and her siblings with significant financial difficulties. The truth turned out to be very different.

“It was like being trapped inside a dark room without any rays of light — as though there’s no point in living at all,” she said. “Everything my trafficker told me was a total lie.”

Ruby became so desperate to escape that she would shout whenever a police siren would go by, hoping to be heard. One day, she tried to escape, but was threatened with a knife. Soon, she lost hope.

The reality of this brutal form of trafficking is that children — many of whom are even younger than Ruby was — are sexually abused, often by their own guardians, while remote offenders in countries including the UK pay to direct and view the abuse in real-time. It is a crime that has grown rapidly during the pandemic (News, 4 December 2020) — Europol reports that the sharing of child-abuse materials has been repeatedly detected at record levels — and one that is swiftly outpacing law enforcement efforts to hold traffickers and sex offenders to account.


THE UK is at a pivotal moment in its efforts to counter the online sexual exploitation of children. The potentially ground-breaking draft Online Safety Bill is now being considered by Parliament (News, 14 May): a piece of legislation which would place a duty of care on tech companies to prevent, detect, remove, and report child-abuse materials. These measures are necessary, as this is a crime happening primarily on mainstream tech platforms — the kinds of site which we all use regularly — and not just the dark web.

As Parliament considers these new measures, it is essential that they listen to the stories and experiences of survivors such as Ruby, without which it is impossible to understand the true scale of the trauma caused to children and the need for swift and effective action.

Furthermore, while the Bill currently has the potential to make significant global changes, there are ways in which it can be strengthened further. The International Justice Mission (IJM), through years of working in partnership with authorities in the Philippines, a hotspot for this form of abuse, has seen, at first hand, the ways in which perpetrators exploit online platforms’ detection blindspots.

We recommend that the Bill incentivise the detection not only of known child-sexual- abuse materials, but also of newly created and live-streamed content. Additionally, we believe that the Bill should broaden the circumstances under which enforcement action against tech companies has to be taken: OFCOM should be able to hold companies to account if they do not proactively prevent, detect, and report this crime. With stronger incentives in place, tech companies will be empowered to play a pivotal and innovative part in protecting children such as Ruby.


IN THE face of such darkness, we must also remember that there is hope. Ruby is now safe to rebuild her life in freedom, having been brought to safety by IJM and Philippine authorities, along with five other girls trafficked to the same house. Now an adult, she is a successful graduate and a fearless advocate for other survivors, telling her story in order that the realities of this crime can be better understood, and to encourage others to take action to end it.

As well as government and tech companies, churches have a significant part to play. IJM is seeing churches around the world stepping up and seeking to a make a difference (Podcast, 30 July). In the Philippines, churches are supporting IJM’s aftercare models: giving direct support to survivors of online sexual exploitation of children, and providing crisis intervention for children immediately after they are brought to safety. Churches in the UK, too, are joining us in praying, fund-raising, and taking action to support more children like Ruby, through IJM’s Freedom Church programme.

This Anti-Slavery Day, we must not ignore the voices of survivors. We should instead listen carefully, moving forward together towards a world in which every child is free.

David Westlake is the chief executive of International Justice Mission UK: IJMUK.org

Anti-Slavery Day takes place on Monday (18 October): antislaveryday.com

*Ruby is a pseudonym

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