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An Ecosystem Approach to Child Dignity and Safety Online

The following article is based on an interview with Dr. Joanna Rubinstein. The opinions expressed are her own.

The ubiquitous nature of the internet is a cliché that dominates the current zeitgeist, from debates on privacy to feel-good-commercials equating connectivity with globalization. What is not always acknowledged is the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Dr. Joanna Rubinstein currently leads the World Childhood Foundation USA (Childhood USA), founded by Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden in 1999. The WCF is a major convener, advocate, and leader in addressing online and offline childhood sexual abuse and exploitation. Charged Affairs spoke with Rubinstein over the phone on December 6, 2019 to discuss Childhood USA’s work and the prevalence of online abuse. Throughout the interview, Rubinstein kept returning to the idea that this global problem requires a global solution. Given that the internet transcends state boundaries and jurisdictions, local law enforcement and country-by-country laws are inadequate. Instead, an “ecosystem approach” should be taken, where NGOs, private tech companies, governments, faith leaders, and law enforcement cooperate and take action to prevent and react to sexual violence against children online. This global system approach should include universal definitions and metrics of child abuse and exploitation as well as standardized response and prevention measures.

Image courtesy of Lucélia Ribeiro, © 2016

A large part of Rubinstein’s work includes high-level meetings with leaders and decision makers from the United Nations, government, academia, civil society, and the private sector. She recently attended the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ two-day conference, “Promoting Digital Child Dignity—From Concept to Action,” held at the Vatican. When asked about the significance of Pope Francis’s participation, Rubinstein was quick to emphasize that he “should continue his role as a global leader addressing the issue of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation. I want Pope Francis to continue convening other religious leaders in order to explore how they can confront this issue with their congregations. This is especially useful given that 93 percent of child victims in the United States are abused by someone they know and trust. Respected by their communities, religious leaders are key resources and should educate their congregants on the problem of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it online and offline.”

Pope Francis’s effort is a step in the right direction. Rubinstein nonetheless believes more global leadership and governance is needed. At the initiative of the King and Queen of Sweden, the WCF and the Global Child Forum hosted a roundtable on artificial intelligence (AI) and online child safety on November 20, 2019. Representatives from Interpol, Swedish and international law enforcement agencies, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and IBM participated in the meeting. The discussion focused on how AI can be deployed to end child sexual abuse online. Rubinstein argued that a regional or country-by-country approach is untenable: “Local law enforcement alone cannot combat these crimes because of the difference in laws from state to state or country to country. Many countries and states differ in how they define and prosecute child abuse, making it easy for offenders to move to a country or state where their crimes cannot be prosecuted.” To illustrate this point, Rubinstein pointed to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s groundbreaking study, Out of the shadows, which was supported by Childhood USA. Thestudy serves as a benchmarking tool measuring how effective each country is in combatting the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and what exact measures each country takes. Some measures include: blocking websites with child sexual abuse material; making grooming a criminal activity; reporting and removing child sexual abuse material; and investing in the prevention of online abuse. Unfortunately, these procedures are not universally applied. The United Kingdom, which ranks highest of all the countries surveyed in Out of the shadows, provides resources to law enforcement prosecuting child sexual abuse and collects data on the prevalence of this abuse, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the lowest ranking country, has failed to enact any of these measures.

With key stakeholders at the table, Rubinstein pointed to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s Child Online Safety report recommendations. As a Commissioner, Rubinstein co-chaired the Working Group responsible for developing this report, which lays the foundation for what Rubinstein calls an “ecosystem approach” to prioritizing child safety online and preventing child sexual abuse and exploitation. It calls for the inclusion of child rights in tech operating models; the implementation of universal digitals skills education; the development of universal definitions, metrics, and standards; and the signing of the Child Online Safety Universal Declaration, among other recommendations. Rubinstein acknowledged that these recommendations could receive pushback from online privacy activists, and while privacy is important, she remained convinced that the protection of children from criminal acts outweighed potential privacy issues.

Rubinstein eagerly told Charged Affairs that, “The Child Online Safety Universal Declaration is an especially important tool for engaging important players because it outlines key steps needed to safeguard children and demonstrates the link between child online safety and UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.2, which calls to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking, torture, and all forms of violence against children by 2030.” The Declaration is also timely because children from developing countries are beginning to gain access to the internet. Rubinstein was firm when stating that children from developing countries are at particular risk: “Thirty percent of today’s internet users are children and as the internet expands to developing countries [which often lack protective measures], more children users will join. In fact, some developing countries have populations that are 50 percent children, leading to a massive jump in the number of children online as well as a likely increase in the number of children sexually abused or exploited online. These children depend on the benefits connectivity can bring: access to education, health care, entertainment, and markets, but we want them to be safe.”   

Rubinstein believes in the transformational power of connectivity and welcomes society’s march toward greater technological capabilities and access, but not at the expense of children’s safety and dignity. Be it in Lawton, Oklahoma or Nairobi, Kenya, definitions of and preventative and reactive measures to child sexual abuse and exploitation must be universal.


Mercedes Yanora

Mercedes works for a higher education non-profit. She has a BA in History with a minor in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University as well as an MA in South Asia Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Apart from editing for Charged Affairs, Mercedes enjoys researching and writing on South Asian society and foreign policy issues.
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