The increase in online child abuse calls for new legislation to force harmful removal

Ottawa –
A leading Canadian expert on online child protection says he is “very hopeful” that a panel of cabinet ministers will find ways to protect minors from sexual exploitation on the Internet by advising them to fight online harm.

Liana MacDonald, executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, was among a dozen people on a panel of experts last week who called on the government to help create a new online protection bill.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Justice Minister David Lamity are preparing to reintroduce a bill to address online damage, including racist and anti-Semitic abuse. The first edition was introduced in the decadent days of the last parliament and died without debate in the House of Commons when the election was called.

McDonald’s inclusion in the new advisory panel indicates that tackling online child abuse will be a key element of an upcoming bill.

He said there was an urgent need for a way to force technology companies to quickly remove child pornography because reports of abuse were on the rise.

The center, which runs the tipline, has seen a 37 percent increase in online child abuse reports over the past year. The average age of victims of online harassment allegations and non-consensual distribution of intimate photos is 14, with many female victims being 12 years old.

The line also managed a 79 percent increase in “sexual behavior” reports – extorting money or sexual favors from minors by threatening to reveal evidence of their sexual behavior.

McDonald’s is advising British officials on the UK’s new online loss bill, which he said was a “game changer”.

Canadian officials are studying a bill in the UK that would impose “care responsibilities” on technology companies, forcing them to quickly remove child abuse images from their platforms or impose substantial fines.

McDonald’s says a voluntary approach to asking companies to remove obscene and exploitative images is not working, and millions of explicit photos and videos are still being promoted.

“It has been allowed to flourish for decades,” he said.

The Canadian Center for Child Protection has its own program called Project Arachnid, which scans the Internet for child pornography. It contains millions of exploitative images, prompting technology companies to send removal notices and requesting the removal of 6 million images and videos since 2017.

Shawn Lytton, executive director of the Tech Coalition for the Fight against Online Child Abuse, said the Arachnid program plays a valuable role, but the industry itself identifies and removes the lion’s share of exploitative content.

“The technology industry has a special responsibility to ensure that its platforms are safe for children,” he said. “Coalition members take this very seriously and actively identify and report it down.”

Coalition members include Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, Discord and TickTock.

YouTube says it has committed significant time and resources to removing the infringing content as soon as possible and has removed more than 1.8 million videos for its policy violations between April and June last year. This includes videos with sex themes or pornography that target teenagers and families.

But McDonald’s says providers sometimes resist requests to remove abusive images, including images of victims of sexual abuse known decades ago.

He said the center had to argue whether some graphic and suggestive pictures of young children fall within its guidelines on removing harmful elements.

“Videos of children being beaten, they do not fit under a clear internal code. We were behind the companies in bringing down the videos, “he said.

McDonald’s says that in addition to pornographic images, technology platforms may be slow to remove online chats about child sexual abuse.

He said that although many pedophiles communicate on the Dark Web, most of the material is on the “clean” web and can be viewed and downloaded quickly if the technology companies agree.

The House of Commons Ethics Committee released a report last year stating that Canadians should have the right to have their picture removed immediately without their consent if they have posted it on Pornhub or other online streaming platforms.

The report recommends blaming online platforms for failing to ensure that content is quickly deleted, as well as ensuring that people featured in pornographic content are at least 18 years old and have agreed to publish it.

The committee conducted its research on sites such as Montreal-based Mindzik-owned Pornhub following allegations in a New York Times article that the site hosted videos of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Pornhub says it has a “strict” policy for “dealing with and eliminating unwanted content” which is much higher than other major platforms. It says it is at the forefront of fighting and eliminating illegal content and banning content from unsolicited uploaders.

A spokesman said anyone who posted content without their consent should have the right to remove it immediately, which is Pornhub’s policy.

Liberals have promised to reintroduce the online loss bill within 100 days of the fall election, a deadline that came and went about two months ago.

A suggestion launched last summer suggested it could be difficult to pass, and some argued that the bill could undermine online freedom of speech and infringe on the right to privacy.

Several members of the new expert panel are among the critics of the first bill.

The panel will hold workshops with the online platform over the next two months and conduct additional consultations, and Rodriguez said the bill would be introduced as soon as possible after that.

This report was first published in the Canadian Press on April 5, 2022.

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