Child abuse is endemic in Hong Kong, and increases annually. The Social Welfare Department reported 882 cases in 2016, 947 cases in 2017, and 554 cases in the first six months of 2018. However, although cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse all featured in the department’s reports, as also did neglect, online child abuse went largely unnoticed, yet is a growing menace.
Since the Prevention of Child Pornography Ordinance was enacted in 2002, much has been done to combat child sexual imagery online. More, however, is still required, and protections must be enhanced. Global restrictions designed to keep children safe online are either not being enforced or are inadequate, with abuse occurring regularly on online platforms, often involving children from Southeast Asia. It is time, therefore, for search engines and social media companies to treat child sexual exploitation as seriously as terrorism, and to stop such images ever being uploaded. This is certainly achievable, provided the will exists.
Although, for example, Microsoft’s Photo DNA technology is now using artificial intelligence to locate and remove child abuse imagery online, the threats are evolving faster than the industry’s response. Some companies, moreover, are still not taking the dangers as seriously as they should, and must do more. Algorithms, for example, must be adjusted to make it harder to find child pornography in search results. The government must, therefore, with its global partners, do whatever it can to pressurize internet companies, whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, into taking all possible measures to eliminate the horrors of child pornography.
Hong Kong’s new Commission on Children must be proactive. Having evaluated online dangers, it must publicize them, and then campaign vigorously for the reforms required to protect young people
Child pornography apart, children now also face significant threats in cyberspace, from cyberbullying, online grooming and exposure to explicit adult material.
Cyberbullying or “doxxing” among school children is a real problem, and countermeasures are required. Research by the Polytechnic University shows that 54 percent of the 2,120 pupils surveyed had seen their personal information posted online without their consent, causing depression, anxiety and stress. Although the privacy commissioner for personal data has reported a 90 percent increase of cyberbullying complaints in 2017 over 2016, most cyberbullying goes unreported, probably because victims know so little can be done.
The High Court has recently, in relation to “upskirting” (using a smartphone to take illicit photographs under a woman’s dress), limited the use to be made of the computer crime laws to combat new types of abhorrent conduct. Backdoor remedies for cyberbullying, such as defamation or unauthorized data disclosure claims, although theoretically available, are no real substitute for a dedicated law on digital communication which criminalizes such behavior. In particular, there needs to be a means of compelling social media platforms to remove such online posts, as happens, for example, in Australia.
Children also require protection from online grooming by pedophiles, which research elsewhere shows is prevalent. In September, for example, the British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, revealed that up to 80,000 people were assessed as posing some kind of sexual threat to children online in the United Kingdom. It would be naive to suppose that such people are not also operating in Hong Kong, although the scale of the danger remains unassessed.
After the British Serious Crime Act 2015 made it an offense to send a sexual message to a child, there were over 3,000 offenses discovered in the first year. Child groomers are undoubtedly making full use of social networks to contact potential victims, and they are often sophisticated, knowing how to avoid detection by evolving their tactics. It is the largest sites which have the greatest problems, and the technology companies must act decisively to end grooming on their platforms.
With the right technology, it should be possible for the industry to identify grooming activity, not least because there are often warning signs. The use of anonymization techniques by potential offenders may, for example, be a cause for concern. If someone makes a large number of friend requests to children, this again may be a telltale sign. The absence of any obvious connection between the parties may suggest greater monitoring is required of the person contacting the child. A regulator may have to be appointed to investigate if platforms are doing enough, with a power to fine if not.
The free availability of online pornography, moreover, is also harmful to children, and an assessment of the problem is required in Hong Kong. The Children’s Commissioner for England has already found that the majority of children there are exposed to pornography by their early teens. It is far too easy for children everywhere, whether inadvertently, through curiosity or as a result of peer pressure, to visit adult websites, and this can lead to psychological damage. Remedial legislation is now required in Hong Kong, such as exists elsewhere.
Britain’s Digital Economy Act 2017, for example, now subjects all online pornography content to control by mandatory age-verification. In particular, online providers have to ensure that their adult websites are not accessible to under-18’s, with a regulator policing the sites. Those which do not comply face huge fines, and providers everywhere must now adopt similar controls. In particular, they must work with child protection experts, law enforcers and with each other to prevent and delete exploitative materials, if necessary by using artificial intelligence technology.
Although the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau of the Hong Kong Police Force does all it can to combat cybercrime, it must have the tools. Hong Kong’s new Commission on Children must, therefore, be proactive. Having evaluated online dangers, it must publicize them, and then campaign vigorously for the reforms required to protect young people.
If it is to succeed as the children’s champion, the commission must demonstrate its capacity to bring about change.
The author is the patron of Against Child Abuse, and was previously the director of public prosecutions.
HONG KONG NEWS