Sexual abuse and exploitation online is one of the most challenging child protection concerns of our times. Never has it been more important for governments, the private sector and civil society organisations to work together and share good practices.
In Norway, 2,478 sexual offences against children were reported to the police in 2020, almost 7 reports per day – with many of these cases happening online. This is over twice as many as in 2006. Every month, the National Criminal Investigation Service receives information about approximately 1,500 Norwegian IP addresses that can be linked to child sexual abuse.
That’s what motivated us at ECPAT Norway to carry out an analysis of 223 cases of child sexual abuse online in Norwegian courts. This research highlighted the ever-evolving threats, new developments and magnitude of child online abuse. It showed the good practices in Norwegian law and some of the limitations that currently remain.
What are some good practices?
When looking at how Norway has been dealing with child abuse online so far, we can spot some positive experiences and approaches at various levels. On a more structural level, Norwegian law recognises that online offences can cause as much harm to child victims as the offline ones.
Our legal system is technology-neutral – the same legal principles apply to all technologies. We can also find good practices if we take a closer look at how Norwegian courts interpret phenomena of child abuse. Sexual offences do not refer only to the ones perpetrated physically by the offender but also to when offenders encourage children to perform sexual actions on themselves.
The courts have a broad interpretation of child sexual abuse material including texts (online chats), animated imagery (computer-made cartoons) and objects (sex dolls). Other good practices can be noticed in the way child victims are supported. Psychological support to child victims is central in our national legislation, especially to avoid the risks of secondary victimisation.
There are institutions that support children before, during and after the justice proceedings – the Children’s Houses (Barnahus). The courts in Norway have awarded compensation for child victims. This includes compensation for damage of a non-economic nature, such as psychological suffering, and compensation for (future) loss of income for children.
Room for improvement
While the developments listed above have provided better opportunities for child victims to access justice, limitations remain. There should be equal access to the Children’s Houses for all children under 18 years old and not limited due to geographical location. Child victims abroad should also have access to the Children’s Houses at all stages of the trial, together with the opportunity to receive long-term support. It is then crucial to develop mechanisms to identify child victims – only if identified, child victims can access justice and get out of exploitation and abuse.
The majority of the child victims in the 223 cases were not identified. These are lost children. Identifying child victims should be a priority – especially when dealing with cases with large numbers of victims.
To date, there are only a handful of victims that have been identified in cases of child abuse online, whereas the total number of victims in a small country like Norway is in the millions. Identifying the victims is therefore the first step to ensure child victims access justice, which requires further technological innovation and international cooperation.
What can be done to detect and remove child sexual abuse material?
Child sexual abuse material can remain online for a long time and may continually be reuploaded prolonging the trauma and harm suffered by victims. It is imperative to put in place mandatory detection, reporting and removal routines. The US centralised reporting system for the online exploitation of children is a good example of this and Europe needs to follow a similar model. Governments, tech companies and civil society organisations all need to work together to remove such material and prevent the images from being reuploaded.
New Norwegian Strategy on Child Sexual Abuse
On 15 August this year, the former Government launched a strategy against Internet-related abuse. The strategy aims to work in a collaborative approach and broad community efforts through public-private partnerships, explicitly mentioning the work of WeProtect Global Alliance. The national budget for 2022 hasn’t earmarked funding for the implementation of the strategy. The new Government has now the opportunity to unlock the potential that this strategy has and help create a world where children are safe online.
We all need to mobilise at all levels – local, regional and global. We all need to commit to joining the fight to eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse. And we all need to translate these commitments into actions. We owe this to all children everywhere.
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.