We Can’t Make the Same Mistakes With Online Child Safety

We Can't Make the Same Mistakes With Online Child Safety That We Made With the AIDS Epidemic. As a physician I saw the deadly consequences of government inaction on AIDS. Today, I see a parallel—with big tech.
Teenage girl using smart phone when travelling by plane, close-up. (Photo: iStock/via Getty Images)

In the late 1990s, I was working as a physician in Zambia when I decided to pull over my car to stop at the side of the road. I couldn’t have prepared myself for what I would see at the intersection right in front of me: coffins of all sizes—including tiny ones for children and babies—for sale.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked. I had been watching many friends and colleagues who were dying of AIDS, and the hospital wards were overflowing with dying patients, at two to every bed, with others lying on the hallway floors. People diagnosed with HIV were living without hope as the medicines that could slow the progress of the disease were largely unavailable to those outside the U.S. and Europe.

Still, the sight of the coffins lined up neatly by the road remains one of the starkest and most disturbing memories from my time in Zambia.

This experience led me to found the Global AIDS Alliance in 2000. As a leader of the organization, our movement mobilized to pressure lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to convince them to fund programs to get medicines to those diagnosed with HIV no matter where they lived. At first it was disheartening to see how little many lawmakers and people in power initially seemed to care that people were dying preventable deaths.

As our movement built power, eventually we were successful—when the U.S. government launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the global community mobilized to create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, two organizations that have saved over 40 million lives in the last 20 years.

Today, I fear I am seeing a similar pattern on another issue: child safety.

As a survivor of familial childhood sexual violence, I have been a longtime advocate for laws to protect children from the trauma that I went through at the hands of my father.

Fortunately, my trauma happened in the 1960s decades before the internet, as children who are violated today are often photographed and videoed by their perpetrators. Content is often shared on the Internet and on storage platforms like iCloud where they can circulate endlessly.

In the last decade it has become increasingly clear that social media and tech companies are irresponsibly allowing sexual violence, harassment and exploitation to spread widely through all social media and internet platforms. On a daily basis children are experiencing abuse, harassment and cyberbullying, which is driving too many young people into a mental health crisis.

Yet the U.S. government has been tragically slow to take action.

Recently, the Senate grilled the CEOs of five big tech companies on child safety in an unprecedented hearing. Among those attending were the parents and loved ones of young people who have been harmed by social media, including some who died as a result.

Though the hearing was a good first step, much more needs to be done.

Countless of young people—including my friend Leah Juliett, a survivor of image-based sexual violence whose underage nude images still circulate on the internet despite their efforts to get them removed—continue to be harmed by social media and technology companies. And companies like Apple, which has refused to detect and remove known images depicting sexual abuse of children, were not required to testify.

The hearing has yet to result in any concrete legislative action—and time is running out. Young people across the country continue to be traumatized every day by this inaction. Were it not for the fact that my abuse took place decades ago and was not documented or uploaded on the internet, I may have been in the same situation as my friend Leah.

I urge President Biden and Congress to urgently take action—starting by requiring companies to enact policies to detect and remove known images depicting child sexual violence, abuse and to prevent cyberbullying. We need to treat this crisis of neglect of children like the public health emergency that it is.

I hope that the government will listen to survivors like myself and Leah—rather than turn a blind eye like I witnessed during the AIDS crisis. There’s an opportunity to save the lives of many young people, but if we don’t act soon it will be too late. We hear their silence, and we hope that they will hear all of our voices and be brave!

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