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Securing cyberspace for children: How to tackle online child sexual abuse and exploitation

The highest priority is assessment of current response systems and reporting mechanisms, stricter implementation of prevention laws, and adequate resources. The end goal must be to ensure long-term safeguards for online platforms that allow secure navigation for minors.

Multiple lockdowns during Covid-19 forced children to turn to the internet for education, entertainment and everything in between. It led to an increase in their average screen time. This prolonged online exposure has increased threats to online safety for children. With the increasing popularity of social media platforms, utilisation of education apps and shift to online classes, children these days have a much higher chance of being exposed to harmful content. Hence, the need to secure children’s welfare and safety online is more urgent than ever.

Online child sexual abuse and exploitation refers to activities such as the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), live streaming sexual assault of minors, obtaining sexually explicit material, exhibitionism and meeting the abuser in-person. This poses serious harm to children who experience psychological stress such as anxiety, trauma, and depression. It can also lead to behavioural changes like drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and lower motivation for academics. It doesn’t end there, as the consequences of online sexual abuse in childhood are far-reaching and may well extend into adulthood — bringing forth issues with intimacy and affecting interpersonal relationships. Moreover, the danger to the child persists after the initial production and distribution of the recorded material, with each repeated viewing or sharing being a violation of the victim.

The rapidly evolving digital landscape and advances in information technology have given rise to better encryption services and the dark net, which provide a safe cover of anonymity to offenders, allowing them to engage in child sexual abuse. Needless to say, the danger and complexity of online abuse has escalated at an alarming rate and needs to be dealt with swiftly. Moreover, the ubiquitous nature of the internet and online interaction has made it so that almost all cases of child sexual abuse feature a virtual aspect. Therefore, a broad perspective and a systems-level approach should be considered when deciding on strategies to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA).

Broadly speaking, the main administrative challenges when dealing with OCSEA are limited law enforcement capacities, gaps in legislative framework,and a lack of awareness and urgency around the issue. Furthermore, the workforce in relevant social welfare organisations is understaffed. The need of the hour is close collaboration between non-traditional partners from the industry, government ministries dealing in technological communication, and law enforcement. Provisions should be in place to prevent future cases and safeguard the victims or survivors.

India has made a significant effort to tackle the wave of rising OCSEA cases in recent years. Not only has it improved the mechanism for reporting online offences against children, but it has also developed new tools and software to control and remove the presence of CSAM on social media and other platforms. Efforts have also been made to sensitise schools and boost the technological capacity of law enforcement agencies to further deal with the issue. Although this four-pronged model has shown some promising results, it is surpassed by the exponential rise in cases across the country.

According to the Model National Response, a joint review launched by UNICEF and WeProtect Global Alliance, there are six key domains for a country to focus on to effectively address this issue — policy and governance, criminal justice, industry, society and culture, research and victim support. Keeping these in mind, there are a number of ways India can better its response to child sexual abuse material. For starters, it is imperative to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of cross-sectoral governance mechanisms that are set up to systematise the national response to child sexual abuse material. The huge backlog for cases of OCSEA in India must also be fast-tracked. As for prevention, institutionalising the collection of national-level data on CSAM can also assist in strengthening children’s online security. The recent Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology can provide an opportunity to meet this exigency.

In addition, there should be further development of clear mandates and creation of a logical framework of roles and duties of all relevant stakeholders within standard operating procedures for investigation. Continuous dialogue between the industry, government and other collaborators, with a distinct agenda and division of responsibilities is necessary. Industry partners, in particular the IT industry, must be provided with suitable training and awareness of the magnitude of OCSEA, along with proper toolkits and guidance. Promoting a systematic and constant approach to training the judiciary and prosecution on CSAM can prove beneficial, if centred around child-sensitive protocols. In the same vein, comprehensive remedies or reparations for victims are just as important and need to be handled by a specialised workforce.

Furthermore, basic online safety measures, parental support initiatives and community awareness training can be integrated into existing education programmes for violence prevention, and sensitising the most vulnerable audience. Existing systems must be evaluated by monitoring and documenting their overall effectiveness and accessibility, including assessment of relevant hotlines and portals (checking to see if they are linked to relevant referral systems), and analysing context-specific reasons for limitations. Dedicated effort must be made to aid ethical and informed media reporting on relevant cases.

A collaborative effort of various institutions across the nation is required to build a safer cyberspace. The highest priority is assessment of current OCSEA response systems and reporting mechanisms, stricter implementation of prevention laws, and adequate resources to sustain these efforts. The end goal must be to ensure long-term safeguards for online platforms that allow secure navigation for minors and a disruption of the actions of offenders.

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