Thursday, 12 December 2019

Address at the Global Summit to tackle online child sexual exploitation, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

The primary duty of any government is to keep its people safe. Responsibility is most profound when it comes to protecting children.

Governments alone cannot achieve that objective; and that’s why the Australian Government is honoured to participate in this Summit and contribute towards international and cross-sector efforts to thwart child sexual exploitation.

I congratulate the We-Protect Global Alliance, the African Union and the Government of the United Kingdom for convening and co-sponsoring this event. I wish to acknowledge, most sincerely, the founder of We-Protect Global Alliance, Baroness Joanna Shields. To the Chair of the African Union, the

British Ambassador to Ethiopia, Dr Alistair McPhail – and Ambassador through you, my sincere thanks to Home Secretary Patel for her leadership in this import area of public policy.

I would also like to acknowledge the Australian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Mr Peter Doyle; Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Ms Julie Inman-Grant; and Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner, Debbie Platz.

To others present – Ministers, heads of delegations, government officials, and representatives from international organisations, industry and academia – it is a great pleasure to be in your company.

Undeniably, technological advancements have pushed humanity forward, but when new technologies emerge, we tend to focus myopically on their immediate benefits, without enough deep-thinking about longer-term consequences.

With the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, we were captivated by its global information sharing capability. Now we are consternated by its abuse, whether by terrorists, criminals or child abusers. A remarkable invention capable of educating and lifting children from poverty at the same time delivering those children into the hands of sexual predators.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we recognise the blind spots of the past, namely, the threats inherent in connectivity, the shortcomings of the internet and social media, and the potential for technology to be abused.

Nowhere is this more explicit than in the sexual abuse of children online.

Repugnantly, child abuse material has become a growing commodity in the virtual world. Every five minutes a webpage shows a child being sexually abused. Through pay-per-view arrangements, a buyer can watch a child being sexually molested via livestreaming services and even more appallingly, they can pay to direct the film.

Australian authorities have noticed a number of disturbing trends in recent years. The severity of violence used against children is increasing and the age of victims is getting younger; the volume and dissemination of violent child abuse material is escalating; and we’re seeing the emergence of self-produced child sexual exploitation material.

In terms of the latter, a child can accidentally upload images and video to seemingly benign social media platforms targeted by sex offenders; or, having been groomed, they may be manipulated into providing content.

Following an Australian law enforcement operation in 2018, one offender was arrested and charged with 20 instances of child sexual abuse. The 24-year-old man posed as a female on social media. He coerced multiple children and teenagers, between the ages of two and 16, to produce content of penetrative and non-penetrative sexual activity involving themselves or against their younger siblings and relatives. Tragically, it is a now familiar story with increasing prevalence across our respective jurisdictions.

More broadly last year, our Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of online child sexual abuse. Each report can contain hundreds to thousands of images and videos. Disconcertingly, that was an 84 per cent increase on reports received in 2017 for a country of just 25 million people.

Ladies and gentlemen, this insidious crime shatters the life of the abused child. Families and communities are left devastated.

The fundamental point to make today is the rule of law must apply in the online world as it does in the real world. As Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, countering child exploitation and sexual abuse in the physical and online world has been one of my highest priorities.

Disgracefully, Australia is a source country for travelling sex offenders. More Australians travel overseas to commit child sex offences than other citizens come to our country to do the same.

In December 2017, my Government passed world-leading legislation making it an offence for an Australian citizen, who is a registered child sex offender with reporting obligations, to travel overseas without permission from relevant authorities.

Since that time, our border authorities have stopped more than 40 offenders from departing Australia. Thousands more have had their passports cancelled or applications refused.

We’ve also been working with our international counterparts. Last financial year, the Australian Federal Police notified our foreign law enforcement partners on more than 340 occasions about Australian registered child sex offenders intending to travel to their countries.

Additionally, our Government strengthened the character requirement of visa holders, making the cancellation of a visa mandatory for anyone who has been found guilty of a child sex offence, regardless whether or not they have been convicted or sentenced to a term of imprisonment. In four years we have cancelled the visas of 427 child sex offenders.

Perhaps our nation’s most significant initiative was the establishment of the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, which I was proud to open in Brisbane 15 months ago.

The Centre brings together expertise from across government, policing jurisdictions globally, industry and NGOs. We have specialists in intelligence, investigations, victim identification, child support and academia all working side-by-side.

Our national, coordinated effort targets online and transnational child sex offenders, while seeking to identify exploited children and extricate them from danger.

Last financial year, the Centre worked with Australian federal, state and territory police to arrest 74 people, identify 38 previously unknown victims and remove 72 children from harm.

It’s an institution which brings together the best of us to combat the worst, but we still face many challenges.

The anonymity afforded online allows the purveyors and users of child sexual abuse material to obfuscate their activities and proliferate material.

In response, over the last year, our Government passed three key pieces of legislation.

The first requires digital industry to report on, and swiftly remove abhorrent violent material from their platforms and servers.

The impetus for this legislation was the horrendous terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, which was ghoulishly live-streamed by its perpetrator.

Importantly, the law not only covers material related to acts of terrorism, but also any audio or visual content of murder, rape, kidnapping and torture, including of course, child abuse.

Secondly, our Government passed legislation that allows security and law enforcement agencies to oblige communication companies to provide technical assistance to investigators of serious criminal offences and national security threats.

We prefer to collaborate on a voluntary basis and appreciate industry partners who are willing to come to the table without legal incentive. However where providers are unwilling to comply, the legislation ensures that we will not be deprived of the ability to enforce our laws.

Thirdly, and more specifically, this September our Government passed legislation establishing new offences to address emerging trends such as the proliferation of online child abuse material and importation of child-like sex dolls.

We also have a further Bill before our Parliament which, once passed, will allow us to hold online service providers to account for facilitating access to child abuse material. Previously, we could only prosecute individuals who explicitly accessed such content.

So in line with the public’s expectations, the Bill will increase maximum penalties and introduce now mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious and repeat child sex offences.

We’ve also established a National Standard for screening people wishing to work with children to afford consistent protection to every child no matter where they are in our country.

All these efforts and initiatives are complemented by the exceptional work of Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Ms Julie Inman-Grant, and her officers. The office of the eSafety Commissioner is statutorily independent and Australia’s regulator of online cyberbullying, image-based abuse and illegal content.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re living in a pivotal period. The boundaries and behaviours of our technological ecosystem are being re-thought and re-defined.

When speaking to Australian industry representatives at a recent forum, I said that the technological landscape is being shaped by tensions: between the benefits and threats of connectivity; between data privacy and access; and between the fair use and abuse of new technologies.

With nefarious activities like child sexual abuse, terrorism and organised crime being oxygenated online, it’s imperative we make the virtual public square safer, which in turn will make our physical surroundings more secure.

For the like-minded nations committed to this objective, there’s an overwhelming desire to partner with industry. We want industry to cooperate with us willingly, but it is clear that many companies have no intent to meet their moral obligations without being forced in to it by legislation.

We will compel their assistance because we put the protection of children above the greed and arrogance of some CEO’s. We believe the fundamental right of a child to be safeguarded from sexual harms trumps a paedophile’s “right to privacy.”

During a recent trip to Washington, I met with my US and UK counterparts, as well as international tech industry representatives, and I was buoyed by a commitment towards improving online safety predicated on public and private sector collaboration.

However, one area of concern for the Australian Government – and others – is the push by some tech companies to adopt end-to-end encryption on their platforms.

This will erode the ability of a tech company and law enforcement to access communications in order to detect and take down illegal content, including child sexual abuse material.

Commendably, some tech companies have made significant efforts to identify, report and rid illicit content from their platforms, including by working with law enforcement agencies, but more still have to pledge to support online safety.

And there’s an inherent contradiction between this behaviour and intentions of some companies to adopt end-to-end encryption.

Just this week we received a response to a letter that UK Home Secretary Patel and USA Attorney General Barr and I penned to the CEO of Facebook. Mr Zuckerberg did not even have the decency to respond, the response was from the Vice Presidents who head up Whatsapp and Messenger who advise that the privacy of their users is paramount to their business. They claim, and I quote, that “keeping people safe is one of our biggest priorities at Facebook”. Well it is nothing more than public relations spin and frankly to all, an insult. Are they forgetting the millions of children who will never be kept safe when end-to-end encryption is adopted as standard practice?

Do they think that by “going dark” they will be absolving themselves of responsibility for despicable criminal acts that take place on their platforms?

Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and other tech CEO’s have made billions of dollars, but these CEO’s are morally bankrupt on the issue of encryption and protecting children. Children, babies and toddlers are being abused and tortured. These companies have the ability to shift the dial, but instead behave like the tobacco companies of the 1960’s. They know with certainty their actions are causing harm and they pretend it isn’t happening.

Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and other CEO’s would not tolerate bullying and sexual harassment or exploitation in their workplace and they would champion the empowerment of women, but at the same time they tolerate the use of their platforms for the sexual exploitation of children, predominately young girls; many of whome will be physically and mentally scarred – in many cases for life – particularly when the image is shared and shared and shared again.

They have also claimed that our Governments are seeking to establish a backdoor that would leave all users significantly more vulnerable to real life harm from criminals and others.

Ladies and gentlemen, this proposition is completely and utterly untrue. It is a lie, and seems to be a convenient excuse to prevent them from continuing to provide critical support to our law enforcement agencies – those who ensure the safety and security of our children and the broader community. We don’t want keys or code. We want them to comply with the law like any other corporation. A warrant issued by a court requires a bank to hand over a customer’s details. We don’t have the keys to the vault or passwords to their bank computers, but the bank furnishes the information. We ask nothing more and nothing less of Apple, Google and the like.

Let me be clear, the implementation of end-to-end encryption only serves to facilitate the business model of criminals. This change will be irreversible – and the harms will be irreparable. It will put citizens at risk. It will hinder efforts to tackle online crime.

How can we accept Zuckerberg’s and Cook’s argument that the privacy of criminals is more important than the safety of our children? I will never understand the argument that criminals should be entitled to greater protections online than they have in the real world – because somehow this will benefit the greater good.

I urge Facebook, Apple and other tech companies to reconsider any hasty plans to design, or redesign their systems in a way which precludes access to such content, including via the implementation of end-to-end encrypted environments. This is not a plea to provide a “backdoor”; rather, it is a call for tech companies to use all the intellectual and technical capability at their disposal to mitigate this looming risk to children.

Moreover, I call on the major tech companies to lead the way in reshaping the market by prioritising public safety within the design of their systems. By taking concrete steps to mitigate the very real risks they are creating by providing a new veil of secrecy to those who will do children harm; adjust their operating systems, stop the uploading of images through the use of technology before encryption is activated. Actions all within their capacity.

We need a healthy balance: between safeguarding people and children, corporate platform autonomy, and user privacy.

In other words, that law enforcement agencies have the ability to access data lawfully to hinder crime; that tech companies maintain control of their platforms; and that legitimate users and law abiding citizens have confidence that their data is secure from unauthorised access.

Such a state of affairs is certainly achievable, provided we do not engage in a zero-sum game.

For those of us gathered at this Summit, there’s a key question that should occupy our thoughts.

It’s not a question of principles. We’re firmly united in our condemnation of those odious individuals who sexually abuse children or profit from disseminating child abuse material.

It’s not a question of commitment. This Summit is testimony to the sense of responsibility which exists across continents and between the public and private sectors to protect children.

Rather, the question is simply one of action. Together we are acting and I commend you all, but the technology companies responsible for this proliferation of material online are now thwarting our actions. Unless the companies are compelled to act for good we will never make the positive impact we so desire.

Our generation must be the one which stems this abhorrent crime; not the generation which passes the problem onto the next.

Thank you very much.