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Cathy Majtenyi: Child protection law can’t come soon enough

By 
  • January 14, 2021

Soon-to-be-introduced national legislation may give a boost to those battling what Public Safety Canada calls “one of the most disturbing public safety issues facing society today” — online child sexual exploitation.

In the coming weeks, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is expected to put forth a draft law that requires companies operating social media platforms and adult websites in Canada to remove illegal content from their sites “within 24 hours or face significant penalties.”

Guilbeault’s legislation stems from a Mandate Letter he received from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December 2019. Included in the description of illicit content is “the exploitation of children.”

Child advocates, law enforcement officials and victims are among those looking to the new legislation to remove images, videos, audio recordings and written descriptions of child pornography — which, actually, is child sexual abuse — and to prevent activities that would bring about, or foster, this abuse.

Public Safety Canada says these activities include using Internet platforms and applications to “groom and lure” children for sexual exploitation, live-streaming child sexual abuse and predators offering “made-to-order” images and videos based on customer preferences.

The timing of the new legislation is crucial, as the occurrence of online child sexual exploitation has skyrocketed since the time of Guilbeault’s 2019 mandate letter.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection oversees a national tip line — Cybertip.ca — to report incidents of online child sexual exploitation. Director Stephen Sauer was quoted in a July 2020 CBC report saying that April, May and June 2020 saw an 81-per-cent increase in the number of reports to Cybertip.ca from youth who had been sexually exploited and instances of adults attempting to abuse children sexually.

It’s a trend that’s played out across the globe. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions — school closures, children and youth spending more time online for educational, social and entertainment purposes, and limited access to community support services, among others — have paved the way for more child exploitation material to be shared and less reporting of child sexual abuse, notes the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).

Predators discuss how to carry out child sexual exploitation tactics through discussion forums on the dark net, says INTERPOL. The dark net, an area within the Internet that requires a special browser to access it, largely facilitates illicit activity.

Victims of this depravity are scarred for life. A 2016 report from ECPAT International outlines many short- and long-term consequences of child sexual abuse, including bedwetting (in younger children), behavioural problems, eating disorders, anger issues, suicides, immune deficiency and even compromised brain tissue.

Online child sexual exploitation is particularly insidious. Having a permanent record of the abuse in a public forum, images and videos that predators, strangers, friends and family alike are able to see adds an extra layer of distress, shame and guilt to the trauma.

The ECPAT report refers to a court case in which a victim said, “Unlike other forms of exploitation, this one is never ending. (Every day,) people are trading and sharing videos of me as a little girl being raped in the most sadistic ways. … They are being entertained by my shame and pain.”

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection launched Project Arachnid in 2017. The platform searches out sites where these images and videos are posted and sends a notice asking that these materials be taken down. So far it’s found more than 20 million suspected images of child sexual abuse in need of review and has sent more than five million removal notices to industry worldwide.

The hope is that new legislation will give teeth to these removal notices and other efforts underway. It is imperative that we do so. Children and youth are the future.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.)

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