Online Sexual Exploitation: Why We Need Reforms Now More Than Ever
By: Rachel Harris
Modern society means consistent developments and advancements in digital technology. This means that the law can easily become outdated by technology, often leading to the need for laws to be reformed in order to control the danger these technologies can pose to rights and freedoms. Sexual exploitation is an issue that has been worsened by developments in technologies such as high-speed internet and the establishment of countless social media sites; these have increased the ease with which predators can target young people for the sake of sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking violates countless human rights; freedom from violence and torture, and the freedom to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, and security. This is why law reform is so crucial in this area, particularly in Australia. The Australian legal system in itself has responded to the effects of developing technology on sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. So why do significant issues surrounding these crimes still remain?
Due to the significant availability of the internet in, it is significantly easier for predators to access information and make contact with people they consider to be vulnerable via the internet. The anonymity offered by many social media sites allows predators to target and exploit young people without sharing any legitimate information about their identity. In 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was concluded, and the commission made recommendations surrounding the prevention of online child sexual abuse. These recommendations included online safety education for young people and parents alike, as well as various changes to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. These recommendations would have been effective had they been implemented in their entirety, but no significant changes to relevant legislation were made as a result of the Royal Commission.
In 2019, the Australian Federal Police discovered that a 24-year-old man had been engaging in sexually explicit conversations with an Australian teenager, lying about his age and identity. He elicited explicit photos from the teenager, later using the images to coerce the teenager into sending further explicit images. The Australian Federal Police Victim Identification Team identified a further 48 child victims, and the perpetrator was arrested. The man faced 54 charges and was sentenced to nine years and four months in prison with a non-parole period of six years and four months. It is obvious that the Australian legal system is able to establish reforms to attempt to regulate child exploitation crimes that occur over the internet, but these offences still occur at an even higher frequency, and legal systems are unable to prevent sexual violence and exploitation of children. The frequency of these crimes highlights the ineffectiveness of current Australian legislation in the prevention of the sexual exploitation of young people and the desperate need for reforms in this area.
High-speed internet access is a specific technological development that has had a detrimental effect on the increase in online sexual exploitation. As high-speed internet access becomes more widespread and affordable, it becomes far easier for predators to share explicit content. Perpetrators can also stream the sexual abuse of children live online, which makes crimes significantly more difficult to detect. In 2010, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act 2010 was introduced. The Act amended several previous acts including the Crimes Act 1914 and the Surveillance Devices Act 2004 and was one of the first significant legislative reforms regarding the sexual exploitation of children. Under these reforms, the penalties for these offences were increased, and the areas of the legislation surrounding offences using a carriage service for child exploitation were made more specific to limit incorrect interpretations. Again, these changes have increased the consequences, but have not made any significant changes to assist in the prevention of these crimes.
In the case of Australian Government DPP (Cth) v McIntosh  VCC 622, Donald McIntosh sexually abused his two daughters and produced video recordings and images of those assaults, making them available to others online. The lack of regulation in cyberspace allowed him to share the abuse on 40 occasions. This is a significant example of how technologies can greatly affect the rates of child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet, and how the rights and freedoms of the young people involved are violated. However, since the conclusion of this case, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Act 2020 has been passed; this act amended the Criminal Code and introduced several new Commonwealth child sex offences, including using the internet to groom a person under 16 years of age, and offences surrounding the use of online services for child abuse material. The Act also clarifies the crimes captured by the offences, including live-streaming child sexual abuse. Again, this reform is relatively effective in facilitating the conviction of child predators, but little has been put into place to prevent it from occurring.
The law is able to investigate and make legislative changes that limit the number of possible interpretations of these laws and allow offenders to be easily convicted and get the necessary sentence. However, all of these reforms only secure the conviction of the offender and don’t do much to prevent the abuse from occurring. These crimes violate countless basic human rights, but still, reforms are not as effective as they need to be in order to prevent these crimes from occurring.
2020. NEW FEDERAL OFFENDER LAWS. Australian Government Attorney-General's Department.
2020. Sydney man jailed for online exploitation and extortion of children. [online] Available at: <https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.cdpp.gov.au/news/sydney-man-jailed-online-exploitation-and-extortion-children&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1627451797069000&usg=AOvVaw1xLG5xyGzCzhtVEwu-Vw61> [Accessed 28 July 2021].
Allen, C., 2019. The Role of the Internet on Sex Trafficking - International Observatory of Human Rights. [online] International Observatory of Human Rights. Available at: <https://observatoryihr.org/blog/the-role-of-the-internet-on-sex-trafficking/> [Accessed 28 July 2021]
Australian Federal Police. n.d. Online child sex exploitation. [online] Available at: <https://www.afp.gov.au/what-we-do/crime-types/child-protection/online-child-sex-exploitation> [Accessed 27 July 2021].
DPP (Cth) v McIntosh  622 (VCC).
2015. Study on the Effects of New Information Technologies on the Abuse and Exploitation of Children. [online] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Available at: <https://www.unodc.org/documents/Cybercrime/Study_on_the_Effects.pdf> [Accessed 28 July 2021].
Justice.nsw.gov.au. n.d. Strengthening child sexual abuse laws in NSW. [online] Available at: <https://www.justice.nsw.gov.au/justicepolicy/Pages/lpclrd/lpclrd_consultation/strengthening-child-sexual-abuse-laws.aspx> [Accessed 26 July 2021].
Legislation.gov.au. 2020. Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Act 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2020A00070> [Accessed 25 July 2021].
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017. Final Report Recommendations. [online] Available at: <https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/final_report_-_recommendations.pdf> [Accessed 28 July 2021].