A global race to stop and prevent abuse online

© R Boed 2014

Earlier this month, the Australian Parliament passed the Online Safety Act. WeProtect Global Alliance Board Member and Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant explains the additional powers given to her office in this new legislation and how they have worked with industry to develop Safety by Design principles and tools.

At the world’s first online safety regulator, it can often feel as though we are in a constant race. A race to keep on top of rapid changes in technology. A race to educate people about the potential harms of the online world. And a race to keep predators away from our children. 

This race requires speed, but also care. Care to ensure regulations are aligned with the threat; that they allow for evolutions and revolutions in technology; and that they safeguard the rights of citizens. In Australia, we have taken some great strides forward in what is a marathon, not a sprint.

The new Online Safety Act will give us at the eSafety Commissioner’s Office new and strengthened tools to help more Australians who are experiencing online harm. In addition, the Act will lift industry safety standards and plug some critical gaps we’ve identified in keeping our citizens safer online.

New tools to tackle child sexual abuse material

Along with a fresh, world-first adult cyber abuse scheme for Australian adults, an enhanced cyberbullying scheme for Australian children, and stronger information-gathering powers, eSafety will have a modernised Online Content Scheme. Building on the track already laid down over 20 years of online content regulation, the updated Scheme arms eSafety with the regulatory tools to tackle child sexual abuse material, no matter where it is hosted.

These tools are sorely needed. Since its establishment, eSafety has intervened to stop cyberbullying of children at the source, investigated and provided support to victims in thousands of cases of image-based abuse, and assisted in removing a vast trove of images and videos of online child sexual abuse lying in full view online.

Over the 2020 pandemic restrictions and lockdowns around the world, eSafety saw a doubling of reports about illegal and harmful content online, including child sexual abuse material.

In 2021, the proliferation of child sexual abuse and online exploitation has continued unabated. Between July 2020 and June 2021, we managed the highest number of reports of content showing the abuse and torture of children ever in the Online Content Scheme’s 21 year history.

New powers in the legislative arsenal are by no means a cure-all, but they will go some way to helping further protect our children and citizens. However – all too often – our intervention comes only after the harm has been done.

Putting child safety at the heart of technology design

I see a major part of my job as preventing these harms in the first place. One of our key approaches is a huge investment in evidence-based education and awareness materials for our citizens.

But I believe that to really move the bar and narrow the threat surface for the future, the responsibility for the hosting of CSAM and the viral perpetuation of online child sexual abuse enabled by their technologies, needs to be addressed by the platforms themselves.  In short, the technology industry’s commitment to safety needs to improve.

From our unique vantage point of regulating big tech for safety transgressions, eSafety wants to see tech companies be successful at raising their safety standards and practices. This desire led us to spearhead ‘Safety by Design’: an initiative we hope will serve as a real catalyst for the change we all want – and need – to see.

Julie Inman Grant talks about the Safety by Design initiatives

Safety by Design (SbD) seeks to shift the technology design ethos from “move fast and break things,” or “growth at all costs,” to one that places safety and user dignity at the heart of product development.  This is an area where we can and should see innovation thrive and can certainly be a means for bolstering trust, reputation and revenue goals.

Just as product liability laws have kept consumers safer from faulty manufactured goods and food safety standards are designed to keep the public from getting sick, governments around the world are embracing this concept for technology product development.  In fact, just last month, the G7 leaders, plus Australia, South Korea and South Africa, endorsed a set of Internet Safety Principles asserting that “safety by design” should be considered a fundamental corporate responsibility.

Helping companies assess and address safety risks

As part of our SbD initiative, we recently released two dynamic and interactive tools to help companies and start-ups on their Safety by Design journey. These tools were developed in concert with more than 180 tech companies and related stakeholders and the tools are freely available to companies that want to assess potential safety risks in their platforms. Even more importantly, the tool surfaces positive and innovative safety by design practices and interventions in place today, giving companies clear pathways for addressing any insufficiencies in design or built-in safety protections.

Much as WeProtect Global Alliance’s national and global response frameworks acknowledge that responses to child sexual exploitation and abuse cannot be addressed in isolation, neither can safety concerns.

This is why, in the global race to keep ahead of online harms, the tools can be used, for free, anywhere in the world, by any tech company. They are open to all, and firms of any size can undertake an ‘online safety health-check’. Following the assessment, the tool produces tailored and specific recommendations on how to address any shortcomings to achieve best practice.

The internet has truly become an essential utility, with the tech giants providing both the ‘vehicles’ and the online ‘highways’. However, if one is to build these digital highways, one should also build guardrails, install stop signs, and, suspend reckless or dangerous drivers. Otherwise, citizens become the online casualties.

Safety by Design can help ensure the online world we depend on every day can be accessed safely. All of us, and especially those who are young or otherwise at-risk, deserve no less.

Julie Inman Grant is Australia’s eSafety Commissioner. Inman Grant’s journey to becoming eSafety Commissioner started in the United States, first working at the intersection of technology and policy in Congress, followed by more than two decades of working in the technology industry, including stints at Microsoft, Twitter and Adobe. You can find more information, including access to the Safety by Design tools at www.esafety.gov.au

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WeProtect Global Alliance or any of its members.

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