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Using Technology to Protect Children from Online Exploitation

By Allison Hollabaugh,
Counsel

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith, the Special Representative for Human Trafficking to the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has registered a supplementary item for this year’s Annual Session in Minsk, Belarus, titled, “Preventing Child Sexual Exploitation Online through Advances in Technology.” 

Smith’s supplementary item examines the ways protections for children have lagged behind technology, leaving children vulnerable.

“Impressionable children in most of the OSCE region have unrestricted access on any web-capable device to every conceivable form of pornography—even the most violent and vile acts—and that exposure has measurable impact on their vulnerability to sexual exploitation,” Smith said.

“Tragically, we are seeing children targeted and further victimized as they are exposed to pornographic websites,” said Smith.

Studies Show Correlation between Youth Access to Pornography, Sexual Exploitation

Similar to earlier studies, a 2016 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (Stanley et. al) of 4,564 young people aged 14 to 17 found in boys a statistically significant correlation between viewing online pornography and committing sexual coercion and abuse.   Importantly, this study was conducted in five OSCE participating States.

A definitive study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology (Bonino, et. al, 2006) found that adolescent girls who report viewing pornography are more likely to report being victims of sexual harassment or forced sex at the hands of male friends or acquaintances.

“We are kidding ourselves if we think unrestricted access to pornography online is not harming our children,” said Smith.

“We are allowing them to be actively and passively groomed for trafficking,” said Smith, referring to how child sex abusers are known to lower the defenses of children and condition children to accept sexual abuse as normal by showing children pornography.

Age Verification

The United Kingdom recently joined Germany, Finland, and Iceland in recognizing that unrestricted access of children to online pornography is a public health concern.  In April of this year, the UK’s Digital Economy Act of 2017 became law, empowering an “age verification-regulator,” most likely the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), to create guidelines on age verification walls for all pornographic websites viewed from within the UK.  The age-verification regulator will be able to fine websites that violate the new guidelines.  Ultimately, IP addresses in the UK for non-compliant websites could be shut down. 

The new UK law is in addition to the country’s current requirement that cell phone companies filter content unless the cell phone owner is 18 or older.

“All UK mobile operators run content filtering and age verification on their networks, based on the BBFC guidelines,” said Ernie Allen, who led the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States and International Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more than 25 years.

“If a customer tries to access an 18+ site and has not age verified, he or she receives a notice on the site that they may not access it until they have age verified,” Allen said. 

Verification may be accomplished by visiting the cell phone store and showing identification, or logging into a designated website and using a credit card.  Cardholders must be 18 or older to have a credit card in the UK.  To make sure the card is not “borrowed” from a parent, one pound may be deducted to give notice to the credit card owner that their card has been used for age verification.  

The data repository already created by the UK cell phone requirements could be used to inform age verification for pornographic websites.  In addition, the data repository created by the UK’s Gambling Act of 2005, which imposed age restrictions for online gambling, could also be used to verify age.  Visitors to pornographic websites could enter their gambling account number, which would then be authenticated by the website.  

The pornography industry has recently come out with its own age verifying system, AgeID.  After an account is created on AgeID, the account number would be sufficient for age verification.

Other companies are offering biometric options, using apps to verify that a passport showing the appropriate age belongs to the person offering the passport as verification.

“We now have the technology to protect children online,” said Allen.  “A few data points sent to a third party can effectively verify age without necessarily disclosing identity.”

The pending supplementary item received sponsorship from 54 parliamentarians representing 26 countries.  President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Christine Muttonen, has offered her support.

Since raising this issue at the St. Petersburg Annual Session in 1999, Rep. Smith has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item or amendments on trafficking at every annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as prevention of sex tourism, situational awareness for the detection of trafficking victims in transit, and corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains.

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