On March 3, Against Child Abuse, the NGO, will hold a forum titled “Child Sexual Abuse in Cyber World,” at the Duke of Windsor Social Service Building, Wan Chai. It will be addressed by experts from the worlds of clinical psychology, education, family welfare, law enforcement and privacy protection, who will be shining a light on a huge problem.
The threats faced by children in cyberspace are now manifold, yet the defenses they require are lacking. All types of criminality are involved, and the victims, as the most vulnerable members of society, are least able to protect themselves.
In the digital age, children face dangers ranging from sexual grooming and cyberbullying to online pornography. All too often, law enforcers are unable to hold cybercriminals to account, not least because sexual predators and others understand the deficiencies in enforcement techniques, and know how to avoid detection. Although new approaches to online criminality involving children are being developed around the world, many places lag behind, including Hong Kong.
Some jurisdictions have enacted highly effective laws to protect children from online abuse, and Hong Kong can emulate their models. Quite clearly, law enforcement agencies should be given the tools they need, including the most sophisticated; and artificial intelligence, for example, can help the authorities identify exploitative materials on websites. Thus, Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology is now using artificial intelligence to locate and remove child-abuse imagery online, and this is hopefully the shape of things to come.
In January 2019, the Law Reform Commission, against a background of increasing criminal activities associated with information technology, the computer and the internet, established its subcommittee to study cybercrime. Chaired by Derek Chan Ching-lung SC, it is seeking to evaluate the challenges posed, review the efficacy of existing legislation, and examine developments in other jurisdictions, with a view to strengthening the city’s legislative regime. Although, three years and six months later, the subcommittee issued a consultation paper in July 2022, which made preliminary proposals for law reform, it did not, despite the urgency, consider the situation of vulnerable children, whose plight will hopefully be addressed in the second stage of its deliberations.
If so, it will not have to start completely from scratch, as, foreign models apart, some useful spadework has already been undertaken locally. In 2019, the Law Reform Commission highlighted the dangers children face on the internet, and called for them to be protected from sexual predators by means of a new offense of “sexual grooming”, and Chan’s subcommittee, given that there is, four years later, still no such law, should throw its weight behind the proposal. Related to that, any sort of sexual messaging involving children must likewise be criminalized, irrespective of whether or not it is a precursor to sexual grooming.
In the UK, the Online Safety Bill is currently making its way through Parliament, and Chan’s subcommittee will also find its proposals instructive. As it stands, it requires all in-scope companies to assess risks and act to tackle illegal activities that threaten child safety online. The technology companies that provide online platforms likely to be accessed by children will have to prevent their access to harmful material, including pornography, and examples of how this can be achieved already exist elsewhere.
What, moreover, Chan’s subcommittee can also usefully consider is a system, previously approved by the British Parliament, that requires all adult internet users wanting to view legal pornography online to prove that they are age 18 or over by providing some form of identification, with criminal sanctions available for service providers that do not adequately enforce age verification techniques. This will go a long way toward protecting children from accidentally accessing pornographic material while surfing the internet. If, moreover, a regulator can be appointed to supervise the service providers, so much the better.
Any future reforms must also protect children from harmful activity online, including cyberbullying. Notwithstanding the recent strengthening of the anti-doxxing laws, cyberbullying remains a real concern for many people, young and old alike. There are various models around the world for Chan’s subcommittee to consider, one of the most effective being New Zealand’s.
If, therefore, Chan’s subcommittee, the Commission for Children and Against Child Abuse, can each, by beating their respective drums, make sufficient noise, they will be heard by all and sundry, and the long-awaited reforms can hopefully materialize. Time, however, is running out, as the plight of too many cyberspace-afflicted children already attests. Everybody knows what the problems are, and it is time, as Sir Winston Churchill would have put it, for “action this day”
In 2015, New Zealand enacted its Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA), the purpose of which is to “deter, prevent, and mitigate harm caused to individuals by digital communications”, and to “provide victims of harmful digital communications with a quick and efficient means of redress”. It seeks to curb cyberbullying that occurs through damaging electronic communications, whether by means of emails, texts or social media posts.
The HDCA creates an agency to efficiently resolve victims’ complaints, provides online content hosts with a process for handling any such complaints, empowers the courts to issue take-down notices and impose penalties, creates an offense of sending messages and posting material online that deliberately causes serious emotional distress, and criminalizes incitement to suicide even in circumstances in which the victim does not attempt to end their life.
In consequence, New Zealand businesses that host sites where posts can be placed must know how to deal with any objectionable posts. An objectionable post is defined as one that discloses sensitive personal facts about somebody, or is intimidating, or is grossly offensive to an individual, or can be used to harass somebody, or contains a false allegation, or is indecent or obscene, or which incites people to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm, or incites an individual to commit suicide, or unfairly denigrates an individual because of color, race, religion, gender, or disability.
When an online content host receives a complaint about a post’s content, the HDCA requires it to notify its author and seek a response. If the author consents (or does not respond within 48 hours), the host may remove the content complained of. If, however, the author objects, the post cannot be removed, and the complainant must be notified. The complainant can then apply to a court for redress, including the removal of the post, the publishing of a correction or apology, or an order requiring an online content host to prevent access to a post, or else to provide information about the author to the court. If there is noncompliance, fines will be imposed.
Quite clearly, therefore, Hong Kong has much to do if it is to provide its children with the protections their counterparts enjoy elsewhere. Even with the best will in the world, there is only so much the NGOs, like Against Child Abuse, can achieve, however vigorous their campaigning.
In some places, including Canada, Ireland and the UK, there is a minister for children and families, and this provides the child with a voice at the heart of government. Although Hong Kong lacks a dedicated minister of that sort, it has at least a commission for children (established in 2018), chaired by the chief secretary for administration, Eric Chan Kwok-ki. If the commission, as an agent of change, publicly advocated a fundamental strengthening of child protections in cyberspace, this could have a profound impact, not least because it might galvanize policymakers.
In the meantime, Chan’s subcommittee bears the immediate responsibility of formulating solid proposals for the protection of children in cyberspace, and it now carries the hopes of many, but it does not stand alone.
If, therefore, Chan’s subcommittee, the Commission on Children and Against Child Abuse, can each, by beating their respective drums, make sufficient noise, they will be heard by all and sundry, and the long-awaited reforms can hopefully materialize. Time, however, is running out, as the plight of too many cyberspace-afflicted children already attests. Everybody knows what the problems are, and it is time, as Sir Winston Churchill would have put it, for “action this day”.
The author is a senior counsel, the honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS