Prostasia Foundation's priority is to work on the prevention of child sexual abuse, but there are other child protection organizations that seem to prefer to play the blame game. This is nowhere more evident than in the United Kingdom, where moral panic over child sexual abuse makes for an uncomfortably symbiotic relationship between the government, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and the news media.
Whenever child sexual abuse is in the news, the NSPCC blames Internet companies (claiming that they have failed in their responsibility to keep children safe), and/or pornography (claiming, with no evidence, that it is the primary cause of child sexual abuse), and proselytizes the idea of stronger government regulation of both industries.
The compliant British press echoes and amplifies these misleading claims, while also regularly using dehumanizing language about the perpetrators of child sexual abuse—even those who were themselves children when they offended. By making child abusers seem like an inhuman, external enemy, and painting Internet companies and pornography as the forces that empower them, the British public quickly falls in line behind the proposals for tough new laws, never thinking that their impact will actually be on their own communities and families.
This is the successful template that lies behind not one, but two current initiatives of the United Kingdom government. The first of these is the blocking of all online pornography under the Digital Economy Act 2017, which Professor Andy Phippen wrote about for us in January. This privacy-infringing law, which takes effect from April 1, will require users to verify their age using a mobile phone, credit card, passport or, drivers license. Websites that fail to comply face being blocked throughout the United Kingdom. The law will, however, have no effect on childrens' access to pornography, as they will still be able to access it using social media websites such as Twitter, and using apps such as WhatsApp—which has fewer safeguards against sharing of illegal material.
The second United Kingdom initiative to combat child sexual abuse through censorship is a new legal duty of care on social networks to censor "harmful" content, even if that content is not actually illegal. This new duty of care is expected to be recommended as part of the government’s Online Harms White Paper, which will be released later this month. A preview of its recommendations has already arrived in a report of a House of Lords committee that was released last week, with the message "It's time to rein in big tech."
Despite the media-friendly headline (who supports big tech nowadays?), human rights experts have expressed concern at the implications of the Lords' recommendations. A particular sticking point is the concept that the "precautionary principle" should be a guiding principle for the moderation of "harmful" Internet content. Better known in the context of consumer protection and environmental regulation, the precautionary principle essentially says, "If in doubt about whether something might be harmful or not, regulate it first until are sure."
This principle works well when it comes to the labelling of frozen peas or the regulation of factory emissions. It's not so appropriate when it comes to the regulation of speech. In fact, it's downright illegal. Under international law, states are required to uphold their citizens' right to freedom of expression, subject only to narrow exceptions such as child pornography which they are expected to both criminalize and censor. An ill-defined requirement to censor "harmful" content would be a much broader derogation from freedom of expression, and there is no precedent for it in international law.
Ironically the result of imposing an inflexible "duty of care" on Internet companies to censor harmful content won't be that they will take more care about what they censor, but less. The risk of crippling liability will simply force them to censor a broad range of sexual speech as a "precaution"—but not a carefully-considered precaution about the harm that such speech may cause to children. Rather, it will be a precaution against a NSPCC-orchestrated media panic that targets Internet platforms as the most convenient scapegoat in its ongoing child sexual abuse blame game.