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Political rivals unite in demands for tech titans to eradicate child sexual exploitation material online

Headshot of Kristin Shorten
Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Both the Minister for Communications and the Opposition spokesman for the portfolio have hit out at tech companies.
Both the Minister for Communications and the Opposition spokesman for the portfolio have hit out at tech companies. Credit: Illustration William Pearce/The Nightly

Both sides of politics have taken a swing at global tech titans over their failure to rid their platforms of depraved child sexual exploitation material and prevent degenerates from continuing to freely distribute the illegal content, despite it being within their “capacity and means” to eradicate it.

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, led by the Australian Federal Police, now receives more than 40,000 reports of child sexual exploitation each year.

Each report contains images and videos of children, including Australian kids, being sexually assaulted or exploited for the sexual gratification of child sex offenders.

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Shadow Communications Minister David Coleman said digital giants, including filthy-rich social media companies, must be held “much more accountable” for the online distribution of “abhorrent” child sexual exploitation material.

“The big platforms must absolutely be held accountable for the content they publish and profit from,” he said.

“Self-regulation clearly hasn’t worked. They must do more to prevent this evil material from seeing the light of day.

“This kind of content is completely abhorrent and the fight against it must continue to be a top priority.”

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Minister Michelle Rowland said, “all child sexual exploitation and abuse material is horrific”. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

Mr Coleman’s counterpart, Communications Minister Michelle Rowland agreed, saying “all child sexual exploitation and abuse material is horrific”.

“There’s not a single fair-minded Australian who wants this material online,” she said.

“Industry needs to take its responsibility to address this content seriously.

“It is certainly not beyond their capacity or their means.”

Australia’s Online Safety Act has empowered the federal eSafety Commissioner to hold digital platforms to account for this content and force them to remove it from their services or face a $156,500 fine.

The eSafety Commissioner also has the power to compel transparency from big tech companies, requiring them to report on how they are meeting the Government’s Basic Online Safety Expectations through the introduction of six legally binding codes to address seriously harmful content, including child sexual exploitation and abuse material.

Failure to meet a direction from eSafety to comply with an industry code, or failure to comply with an industry-standard, carries civil penalties of up to $782,500.

Ms Rowland said the Government has also brought forward a statutory review of its online safety legislation to ensure it was “fit-for-purpose to meet new and emerging harms”. The review will report back to the Government later this year.

In the 2023-24 Budget, the Government quadrupled the amount of annual funding for the office of the eSafety Commissioner.

Mr Coleman said he strongly supports the e-Safety Commissioner’s ongoing work but tech companies must do more to tackle the issue.

“The Coalition would offer bipartisan support for any sensible measures proposed by the Government to build upon the important work that is underway in this area,” he said.

The Federal Member for Banks said the Coalition backed the eSafety Commissioner’s recommendation to hold a trial of age assurance technology, aimed at protecting children from accessing pornography, and wants to see age verification introduced.

“While this trial would initially be focused on stopping access to pornography, it could also be used to stop children from accessing other dangerous content,” Mr Coleman said.

“The Coalition last year tried to legislate a trial, but the government used its numbers to oppose that, which was extremely disappointing.

“It’s important that we move forward on age verification to protect children, and the Government needs to take action on this issue.”

DAVID COLEMAN PRESSER
Shadow Communications Minister David Coleman said digital giants, including filthy-rich social media companies, must be held “much more accountable” for the online distribution of “abhorrent” child sexual exploitation material. Credit: AAP

Meanwhile, reports of online child sexual exploitation to the AFP-led ACCCE have increased by more than 180 per cent since its launch in 2018.

In the 2022-23 financial year, the ACCCE Child Protection Triage Unit received 40,232 reports of child sexual exploitation.

“Some reports can contain many different files and multiple victims,” an AFP spokesperson said.

“Some offenders have been identified as possessing or sharing hundreds, or even thousands, of files of child abuse material by AFP investigators.”

The majority of reports received by the ACCCE come from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, and relate to content shared with or by a computer using an Australian Internet Protocol (IP) address.

“Reports … cover a range of offenses and include both Australian and international victims and Australian offenders,” an AFP spokesperson said.

“Child abuse material is sadly shared on many platforms and is not a problem unique to any one social media platform or company.”

The AFP said there was no single offender profile.

“Offenders can be any gender, and range in age, background and profession,” the spokesperson said.

“Parents need to be just as aware of the risks to their child’s safety while they are interacting online, as they are when outside the house, playing in a park or in the street.

“While they might think their children are safe because they are under the same roof, the AFP urges parents to be vigilant and ask children about their online use, who they are interacting with and what platforms, apps or games they are using.”

The AFP charged 186 offenders with 925 child exploitation-related offences in the 2022-23 financial year.

This comes after Australia’s e-Safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant last week said the proliferation of online child sexual abuse material was “getting worse with every passing day”.

“Child sexual abuse material is spreading at a pace, scale and volume we have not seen before,” she said.

Report information about child abuse and exploitation to Crime Stoppers 1800 333 000

Report online child sexual abuse material to the eSafety Commissioner https://www.esafety.gov.au/report

If a child is in immediate danger call 000

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