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Online Child Sexual Abuse: How it Works and What’s Being Done

In New York State, the following behavior is considered sexual abuse:

  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Obscene sexual performance
  • Fondling a child’s genitals
  • Intercourse
  • Sodomy
  • Any act that involves exposing a child to sexual activity or exhibitionism
  • Any commercial exploitation such as prostitution or production and dissemination of pornographic materials

New York law deems any child under the age of 17 or one who is mentally incapacitated or physically helpless, to be incapable of consenting to a sexual act. See Parents’ Guide to New York State Child Abuse and Neglect Laws

An underreported problem is online child sexual abuse.  Because the internet spans the globe and the laws vary from country to country, and the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse are often quite sophisticated, law enforcement efforts are severely hampered.

There are three main types of online child sexual abuse:

  1. Online grooming – a practice in which an adult befriends a child with the intention of sexually abusing that child. Perpetrators select a child on the basis of appeal/attractiveness. They also consider the ease of access: that is, the degree to which the privacy settings on websites frequented by the child are either inadequate or disabled. Perpetrators consider the child’s vulnerabilities. For example, if a child posts about loneliness, isolation, or feeling misunderstood, a perpetrator will exploit that vulnerability. To develop a friendship with the child, the perpetrator uses information that he finds online about the child. The perpetrator uses information, such as a hobby or a family situation, to bond with the child and cultivate their trust. The perpetrator determines the risk of discovery before any sexual exploitation by asking if anyone, such as a parent, monitors the child’s online activity. They tell the child that their relationship is exclusive and secret. The perpetrator’s objective is to manipulate and control the child in order to sexually exploit or abuse them. The exploitation or abuse can be offline. The perpetrator may set up a physical meeting with the child to abuse him or her. The relationship may remain online, such as when the perpetrator manipulates the child into taking a sexually explicit picture or video and sending it to the perpetrator. Both kinds of abuse are damaging to children.
  2. Child sexual abuse / exploitation material – any manner of depicting of a child engaging in or pretending to engage in explicit sexual activity or the sexual parts of a child for mainly sexual purposes. This material may be disseminated online by email, text message, chat rooms, instant messaging, sharing apps, social media, and communication apps. This material may also be shared on password-protected sites, bulletin boards, and forums.
  3. Live streaming of child sexual abuse – real-time broadcasting of the sexual abuse of a child. This type of abuse is found in online chat rooms, communication apps, and social media platforms. Viewers may be “passive,” meaning they pay to watch. Viewers may also be “active.” Active viewers request certain physical acts.

The age of consent of a child varies by state and by country, which impedes cross-border cooperation with respect to online child sexual abuse.

The production and dissemination of sexually explicit images of children have reached epidemic proportions. A New York Times investigation found that there were over 3,000 child sexual abuse imagery online in 1998.  This number grew to over 100,000 by 2008. Six years later, the number of reports of online images surpassed 1 million. By 2018 the number of images reported was 18.4 million.

Technology such as smartphone cameras, social media, and cloud storage have contributed to the proliferation of sexually explicit images that can be found on the web. New and recirculated images can be found on internet platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft’s Bing search engine, and even a storage service like Dropbox.

Law enforcement agents have found a number of online groups that specialize in sharing images of young children and more extreme forms of abuse. These groups are often found on the dark web and utilize encrypted technologies in an attempt to avoid discovery by law enforcement. Several tech companies such as Facebook and Google have increased surveillance of their platforms even though the law does not require them to look for child abuse. The law only requires tech companies to report child abuse when they find it. To further complicate matters for law enforcement, many of these sophisticated online groups use tools such as encryption to teach pedophiles how to produce and disseminate sexually explicit material worldwide.

The victims of this type of abuse not only have to deal with the trauma they experienced when the abuse took place but now live with the constant fear that someone will recognize them from the pictures and videos that are circulating on the internet.

The New York Times investigation that revealed how large the problem is prompted federal legislation that allocates money and resources to combat the problem. Previously proposed bills had targeted tech companies and required them to follow safety guidelines. Failure to follow these guidelines could jeopardize protections for the content of the tech companies.

These bills failed in part because of privacy concerns. There was significant concern that the safety guidelines could be used to ban encryption that the tech companies used on their messaging apps and other platforms. Many people use these encrypted apps because they value their privacy, not because they are trying to hide illegal behavior.

The bill titled Invest in Child Safety Act was originally introduced in May 2020 and was reintroduced in February 2021. This bill calls for five billion dollars in funding to target online predators and abusers. These individuals use the internet to create and share images of children being sexually exploited. The bill also directs significant funding to efforts within the community aimed at preventing the sexual abuse of children. This bill is still pending in Congress.

Abusers win when their victims are too scared, embarrassed, and/or traumatized to name or go after their abusers. The attorneys at Hach & Rose, LLP will help you assert your legal rights.  We will be with you through each phase of the legal process. Take the first step towards reclaiming your life and call Hach & Rose, LLP at (212) 779-0057 for a free consultation.

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