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Survivors of violence need the U.S. to address online sexual exploitation to keep children safe

By Ruby* and Joy*, survivors of child sexual abuse online

A new study found that in 2022, nearly half a million children in the Philippines were sexually abused online while perpetrators watched, directed, and paid for the images and videos created from these crimes. As survivors of online sexual abuse, we hope that this finding shocks the conscience of the world and spurs tech companies to do more to combat this plague of violence.

We know the United States Congress is considering legislation to address these international crimes; we urge lawmakers to act now. Today, Jan. 31, 2024, the CEOs of Meta, X, Snap, Discord, and TikTok testified about this very problem before the Senate Judiciary Committee. We want policymakers and business leaders to understand the nature of these crimes and the impact they have on millions of children around the world.

The most important thing for you to know is that when people pay for children to be sexually abused online, including in live-streamed videos, the experience is virtual for them, but it is very real for the young girls and boys posed in front of cameras. It hurts us physically and mentally. While we have healed from our trauma, it is a wound we will live with forever.

I, Ruby,* was trafficked to an online sex trafficking den, far from my hometown in the Philippines. I was a young teenager, orphaned and desperate for a better life. The first time I was abused in front of a webcam—directed by men on computers from the other side of the world—made me feel disgusted at myself. I never want other children to know that feeling and that is what drives me to advocate now. It is also why I plan to attend law school.

I, Joy,* was first exploited at 10 years old. My abuser took photos of me and used a webcam to stream the abuse through live chats with customers. The abuse continued for several years behind closed doors, undetected and unreported, while I carried shame and fear into my everyday life. It was not until I was rescued that I fully understood that what happened to me was abusive and the person profiting from it was committing a crime. I want every child suffering in secret right now to be found and every person committing these crimes to be stopped.

We are just two of over 1,000 victims (and those at-risk) brought to safety in the Philippines in recent years from sexual abuse online happening in video calls directed and paid for by offenders in the U.S. and other countries. There are many things that need to be done that would be very meaningful for us as survivors and for the children still being abused.

Congress should require tech companies to make their platforms “safe by design” and prevent, detect, report and remove child sexual abuse produced or shared on their sites. On social media and messaging apps, anyone can easily find abuse and exploitation material. No child should be seen in such pictures and videos, and no one at all should see them. Knowing that all traces of the abuse we experienced can no longer be seen or purchased helps survivors heal.

It is very important that tech companies detect and report any sexual abuse of children by users on their platforms. The lack of transparency about prevention, detection and reporting efforts by tech companies is surprising to us. If companies had to report publicly what they are doing to prevent the buying and selling of children on their platforms, they might do more.

Leaders in the technology and financial sectors and governments can work together to stop the criminals. The U.S. government, in particular, plays a key role because many offenders who commit child sexual abuse online live here and it is the home base for tech companies whose devices and apps are used daily to sexually abuse and exploit children at scale.

Criminals must be apprehended so they can be punished under the law for their crimes, but they should also be required to provide compensation to help survivors rebuild our lives. This is a must for us.

This new study shows the world what happens to a nation’s children when it becomes the epicenter of such a global crime. The status quo is unacceptable and children around the world need the United States to act now. Congress can pass online safety laws, such as the EARN IT Act, to protect children from severe sexual abuse. We urge them to do so.

*Pseudonyms used to protect online safety and preserve the privacy of survivors. Ruby and Joy consulted on the World Economic Forum’s Global Principles on Digital Safety, found here.

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