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Mining the data on child sex abuse

Is Tony Abbott trying to use an ill-informed myth about the link between metadata and child sex abuse in the hope that the Opposition, the Senate, and the electorate will allow him to do what he wants? Dean Laplonge reports.

Tony Abbott has stated there is a link between metadata storage and protecting children. In an attempt to secure support for legislation that will require companies to store metadata for two years, he has claimed the new law will assist with investigations into child pornography and child sexual abuse. “We know that access to metadata has played a role in preventing and investigating terrorism offences. But it’s also vital to investigating major crimes that destroy lives in this country – and no crime is more abhorrent than crimes against children.”

The connection he makes between crimes against children and terrorism is intentional. Both topics generate intense emotions of fear and anger. The mere thought of either occurring can lead people to insist that anything and everything must be done to prevent and stop them irrespective of whether the actions taken are illegal or curtail individual freedoms. The threat of terrorism has been used to justify wars. The fear of child sexual abuse has been used to gain cross-party support for the introduction of cyber predator laws in several Australia states – laws which allow police officers to masquerade as children online in an attempt to entrap potential paedophiles.

Abbott’s sudden concern for the well-being of children is at odds with his recent response to the Forgotten Children report issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission. This report concluded that the detainment of children in immigration detention camps breaches Australia’s international obligations. It recommends that all children in immigration detention be released and calls for a royal commission into the issue. Abbott labelled this report a “transparent stitch-up”.

On the one hand he views the fact that children in detention are suffering as less important than his and his government’s reputation, but now he claims to be working to protect children.

The children mentioned in the Commission’s report are real. This report does not talk about potential harm to children who might be placed in detention in the future. It cites examples of doctor’s reports on how actual children are suffering because of their detention now. The children to which Abbott refers in his latest comment are imaginary. His concern in this case is about the potential and possible sexual abuse of unknown and, as yet, invisible children.

This is not to say that children are not victims of sexual abuse. To help Tony Abbott better understand this issue too, however, we should consider what experts in this field have to say on the matter.

In her ground-breaking and challenging book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine argued that “Projecting sexual menace onto a cardboard monster and pouring money and energy into vanquishing him” renders children “more vulnerable both at home and in the world”. This is because the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by somebody already known to the child, and often from within the child’s own family circle.

In their 2012 article “Reconstructing the sexual abuse of children: ‘Cyber-paeds’, panic and power”, UK academics Yvonne Jewkes and Maggie Wykes argue that the relocation of child sexual abuse to the virtual space has effectively silenced reporting on sexual abuse in the domestic space. “Anxiety around ‘cyber-paeds’ has become a smokescreen diverting attention from the real sites of sexual harm to children: men in paternal/familial settings and a socio-economic context that constructs children as sexually desirable,” they write.

Another UK academic, Mark O’Brien, has argued that the response to internet child pornography and child abuse constitutes a moral panic. He quotes from professor Stanly Cohen’s work on moral panics about youth cultures in which a moral panic is defined as something that is “presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media” and when the “moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people”. The outcomes of the current moral panic about online child sexual abuse are, according to O’Brien, an absence of balanced scrutiny of the issue, a reluctance to debate the difference between voyeurism and practice, and opinions presented as fact.

Katherine Williams wrote in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law that laws which are introduced to respond to online child pornography seek to preserve a specific ideal of sexual morality. She notes that such laws are often introduced without evidence to support claims about what they will achieve. Instead, assumptions are made about who is viewing the images, what these images are being used for, and how they relate to the actual sexual abuse of children.

Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick from the College of Law at the University of Utah argues for disentangling child pornography from child sex abuse. She suggests that while “child sex abuse is often a messy intrafamilial problem,” we just don’t want to think about or deal with that. The idea of a stranger posing a threat to “our” children is oddly more appealing.

Looking at child pornography laws in Canada and the USA, Robert Danay has addressed the claim that any resistance to government intervention to restrict usage of the internet is simply a ploy on the part of paedophiles to organise and elevate their status. He writes that such a suggestion is based on “hysterical misinformation and has masked some of the real harms that stem from our current child pornography prohibitions.”

Finally, Ludwig Lowenstein’s review of “Recent research into the downloading of child pornographic materials from the internet” discovered that “Research concerning the use of child pornography by paedophiles had been mostly anecdotal, and the few empirical studies on the topic had been plagued by inconsistencies in definitions and problems involved in sampling methods and procedures.”

The ideas I have summarised here are not exhaustive or by any means extensive. There is a lot of work being done to investigate a range of related issues, including the effectiveness of online tools to monitor the circulation of child pornography, the use of sexting and pornographic selfies as methods of communication between young people, the impacts of the construction of child pornography on children, and the construction of the paedophilic gaze through laws that nevertheless claim to be seeking to put an end to viewing children as sexual objects.

The point I seek to emphasise is that the research does not state conclusively or even strongly that internet child sexual abuse is the biggest threat to children or that metadata laws solve this particular cultural problem. Child sexual abuse occurs; of that there is no doubt. How, where, and by whom are, however, matters of interest and debate, at least among those who seek to investigate this issue seriously.

Tony Abbott is no expert on this subject. It’s doubtful he has considered the issues of internet child pornography and child sexual abuse in as much detail as these researchers and writers have. Despite extensive search through journal databases, I was unable to find any peer reviewed article or even newspaper article written by him on this particular subject. He nevertheless deems it appropriate to speak about it in a way which puts forward his views and opinions as if they were unchallenged facts, and as if he does know what he is talking about.

Granted, the topic of child sexual abuse is highly charged. Even the presentation of other people’s ideas here is likely to result in personal abuse against me. I believe it important, however, that a serious and considered debate about this issue take place before we rush into accepting any new law which will allow greater government monitoring of our private communications but which has not been shown to be able to solve a problem to which it has now been linked.

Abbott has claimed that a report detailing the suffering of children in detention camps is politically motivated. I wonder if he will now dare to make the same claim about the facts concerning internet child pornography and child sexual abuse that I have outlined above. Are these people who read, investigate, gather and analyse data, and then write up their findings telling tales to get at him and his government? Or is he seeking to use yet another ill-informed myth in the hope that the Opposition, the Senate, and the electorate will allow him to do what he wants?


Author’s biography

Dean Laplonge is a cultural theorist whose research and consulting work explores the relationship between culture and everyday practices. He is the author of GenderImpacts (, a blog which explores the impacts of gender on the way we think and behave. He is also the Director of the cultural research company Factive ( and an Adjunct senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

Publication rights

Copyright of this article remains with the author.


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  1. Graham Houghton

    Yes, he’s a hypocrite as well as a proven liar and man of violence. Nothing is beneath him including, it would seem, respecting the laws of the country that gave him and his family the benefit of the doubt in allowing them to come here.

  2. mysay

    Who does he think is listening to this crap,this man is a complete grub who would use the rape of innocent children to have his metadata laws passed,he cares nothing about children being abused,look at the treatment the children in detention centres are suffering
    If the Labor government and the rest of the senate agree with these laws they are no better than Abbott
    The powers that be seem to have more than enough power to put people under the microscope as it is ,

  3. mark delmege

    This is just a cover story, a ruse just like his statement tomorrow on Muslim extremism – he has other plans. Besides it’s not the monkeys that are the real problem but the organ grinders. And don’t expect any relief from Labor …when they sold our banks they joined the other side.

  4. shaypeshyfter

    Have these idiots never heard of VPNs?

  5. RosemaryJ36

    Another ploy to divert attention from his disastrous governing errors

  6. Richard Lee

    Tony Abbott is an expert on Child Sex Abuse. That’s why he’s congratulating fellow Vogon Scott Morrison for encouraging Child Sex Abuse on Manus Island.

  7. Sir ScotchMistery

    Just imagine how cool it would be if we had an Australian as the pm (#notmypm).

    We could expect him or her to have balls of steel, a brain capable of rational thought, and would be interested in the future of the country, rather than his own future.

    We could look forward to rational thought leading to well reasoned argument on both domestic and international policy.

    Instead, sadly, we have Peta Credlin and her mouthpiece, Tony Abbott. Failed priest. Failed member of parliament, failed Australian. Failed man.

    Poor fellow, my country indeed. Look for something that frightens the masses and run with it. Prime minister Tony Abbott. Moron.

  8. DanDark

    Tones real views on pedophiles in below article , does he not forget what he really thinks of pedophiles
    He went on 7;30 to defend them in the not so distant past,
    He is such an opportunist, and will use anyone or anybody to get his bullshit meta data laws in
    even children, because he couldn’t give a shit about the victims of sexual abuse never did.

  9. Matters Not

    Great article. As for:

    is he seeking to use yet another ill-informed myth in the hope that the Opposition, the Senate, and the electorate will allow him to do what he wants

    I think so. It seems to me that he’s always about himself (defined narrowly as a political animal) and will choose any avenue to achieve that goal.

    I await with interest any findings re the Royal Commission on child abuse and his reaction. Will he ever condemn Pell et al?

  10. Sir ScotchMistery

    No. Pell would send him to hell.

  11. Matters Not

    Sir ScotchMistery said:

    Pell would send him to hell

    While Pell may harbour that ‘desire’, (who knows) one must ask whether Pell has that ‘power’ in any practical or theoretical sense? Theologically, I would have thought it was beyond George’s power to decide who ‘ascends’ or ‘descends’.

    I would think that decision belongs to a higher power. But when is comes to such matters I am most probably wrong and proud to admit same.

    I doubt also that George Pell is likely to respond with any statement that resembles In šāʾ Allāh .

  12. Loz

    This man Abbott is trying to cling onto power and will do just about anything to keep him in government. Tying data retention to uncovering child abuse is treating the electorate like idiots. This man has no conscience and no integrity and he continually tries to deceive the public. When will this despicable man be gone!

  13. Sir ScotchMistery

    No one who understands the issue of data retention, actually puts that up as a reason for retaining the data. It would probably be as about as possible, as has been the case with the use of retained data to date, to stop terrorists from going bang.

    No one has yet described a method of utilising retained data to do much at all, but the management of the data and trying to harness the information it holds is so far outside the skill-scope of the likes of the “AFP” as we call the people asking for the data (according to the current occupant of the seat normally used by the pm of this country), as to be laughable.

    There are areas of universities now looking at developing courses specifically aimed at data trawling to try to make sense of the collected data, because there is so much of it.

  14. John Kelly

    The comments by Abbott are simply a case of trying to find something, anything, that would resonate favourably with a public that is no longer interested in listening. The “security” statements are trying to do the same. His PR and Communications people are desperately trying to find something that records a positive for him.

  15. corvus boreus

    I dedicate this to Mr Abbott, in honour of his repulsive hypocrisy in linking his spy laws to fighting pedophilia whilst simultaneously disparaging the Human Rights Commission report of serious abuses of incarcerated refugee children and defunding the Royal Commission into institutionalised (especially church) child abuse.

  16. Sir ScotchMistery

    Several chaps in Rome had the same problem, with their senate.

    Like Abbott, they started off with sending legions to places like Gaul, well away from the city, kept the pleibs occupied worrying about their sons and fathers.

    When that got stale, the emperors took over paying for the games in the Coliseum.

    That got stale after a while and when one games lasted 100 days, Rome stopped working.

    Someone took it upon themselves to kill the emperor, in front of the crowd at the games.

    Bring on the games..

  17. Lee

    Good article. Of course this is just another day of Tony Abbott being a major drama queen to get what he wants. It’s quite obvious from his response to the issue of children in detention that he really doesn’t give a rat’s posterior about our children.

  18. Kaye Lee

    I think the fact that the Abbott government took $4 million in funding away from the Royal Commission into child sex abuse to fund the 9th inquiry into the pink batts says it all. They were more interested in pursuing the previous government than pedophiles.

    “$4 million was redirected from savings achieved in the 2013-14 capital budget of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RCIRCSA),” it states.

    The Attorney-General’s Department has confirmed the money was redirected into the former government’s home insulation royal commission.”

  19. diannaart

    Excellent and vital article, one I wish Abbott would read – OK dreamin’ again.

    Abbott investigate and study the nuance of any issue? Bwaaaahaaahaaahaa, he doesn’t make it past the headlines – more likely what his various Wormtongues tell him – anyone thinking Credlin is the only one, need a rethink.

    Child abuse, as the author has stated mostly occurs with someone the child knows on a regular face to face basis. Metadata collection will not make any difference to this vile situation. In fact, as the author has said, the focus will be taken off the the far more common incidence of local (home, school etc) abuse.

    To our shame.

  20. Kaye Lee

    Could I also point out that the National Security Hotline had taken 18 calls from concerned members of the public regarding Monis’ website in the six days before the December 15 siege at the Lindt Cafe. Crucially, Monis had announced his conversion from Shia to Sunni Islam – the sect to which Islamic State and al-Qaeda belong.

    Those complaints were referred to ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, and in some cases, the NSW Police.

    Each was dismissed.

    The man was well known to the authorities. His facebook posts were disturbing. He wasn’t in touch with any terrorist group. How on earth would “metadata” have helped?

  21. Bob Grahame

    Hey Tony just remember that the police, ASIO, ASIS etc will also have access to your meta data and email so there is likely to be more leaks about your correspondence supporting your petiphile mates and rich mates paying for favours

  22. Harquebus

    Child abuse , terrorism and other criminal activity are not at a large enough scale in this country, excluding the government, to warrant any further erosion of our liberties. Data retention is the first installment in a grab for information on innocent people for other than honest intentions and purposes. Stasi comes to my mind.
    We should be watching our government, not the government spying on us.

    “Wolfgang Schmidt, noted wistfully that the current extent of mass surveillance of the domestic U.S. population would have been a “dream come true” for the Stasi.”

  23. Sir ScotchMistery

    @Diannaart the instant words in a post have more than 6 letters, that’s “our Tony” rooted.

    Also there would be no co-realtion between metadata and KP for the simple reason George Pell’s mates may be implicated.

    We will have to wait until we have a proper police force before that happens.

  24. Harquebus

    “Senator Brandis’ comments on 7.30 came as a police insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity told ABC Radio National’s Download This Show program on Thursday afternoon that Australian people were “being sleep walked into a system the attorney general cannot even articulate”.
    concerns centre on there being no judicial oversight to access the data, exactly what data is stored, the length of time the data is stored, which agencies have access, the secure storage of the data so that it isn’t hacked, journalists’ sources potentially being revealed by it, and the shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus’ own belief that the attorney-general of the day should not be allowed to alter without parliament’s approval what data is stored.”

    Tony Abbott in question time today said, “We will not sacrifice liberties in order to protect them.” Ha!

  25. Harquebus

    “What kind of government clandestinely spies on its citizens; militarizes local police forces; conducts military training operations in major cities; wires its streets and highways with surveillance cameras; disperses peaceful protestors with water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets; and treats the U.S. Constitution like toilet paper? An authoritarian regime treats its people like this. Authoritarian regimes treat everyone like a potential enemy. They trust no one. Those in power care only for themselves and their lackeys.
    Those in power are preparing for war – against you. There are two things the ruling class fear the most – the internet and the approximately 300 million guns owned by citizens in 50 million households. The State, through the FCC, wants to “regulate” the internet to “protect” people from being told something other than what the State wants them to hear.”
    The Empire Of Debt: This Is A Sign Of The End.

    “It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.” — Joseph Goebbels

    “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.” — Adolf Hitler

  26. jhony

    This man Abbott is trying to cling onto power and will do just about anything to keep him in government. Tying data retention to uncovering child abuse is treating the electorate like idiots. This man has no conscience and no integrity and he continually tries to deceive the public. When will this despicable man be gone!

  27. Rosângela

    Good article. It’s quite obvious from his response to the issue of children in detention that he really doesn’t give a rat’s posterior about our children.

  28. Sir ScotchMistery

    In a recent conversation with Julian Burnside, the point was made that one of the greatest problems in terms of reported crime in this country is child abuse. I’m not clear whether that is an increase in reporting or an actual increase in numbers however I think it’s the former.

    Mister Burnside in my opinion quite accurately posited that if that particular crime is the greatest threat or the greatest growing threat to Australia then the simple answer would be to place a camera in every room of every home and building in Australia. That would stop the crime immediately.

    A couple of days later when discussing data retention after having been told by the person I was speaking to that I had nothing to worry about if I was doing nothing wrong I revisited the conversation with Julian Burnside and pointed out to the person speaking just how accurate it was and how timely that somebody should think of it. He agreed strongly.

    I then asked him which room in his house he’d like me to put the camera in first. After much umming and ahhing he said there’s no point in putting a camera into his house, as he wasn’t doing it.

    But if, I pointed out, we put the cameras in your house we could be sure that you weren’t doing it, so that would be completely okay since if you are not doing it, you have nothing to worry about.

    He finished the conversation by informing me that I was a left-wing Marxist dickhead..

    My impression was that a Marxist would automatically be left-wing. What do others think?

  29. diannaart

    @Sir Scotch

    The person you were speaking to was projecting – a common form of attack by the thoughtless. Of course calling Marx leftist is a tautology, however, it is clear just who the dickhead is.

    Bigots – not known for thinking things through.

  30. Sir ScotchMistery

    Over the past couple of weeks we have been assaulted by the “thoughts” of a Canberra based “correspondent” called “Jammy March”, who has not, in the greater scheme of things proven him/her/it self capable of maintaining the standards we all expect here, in terms of standards of commentary.

    I hold my hand up to having introduced one subject which tried a few people’s patience, but the issue really was one of not so much “raising” the level of comment, as much as introducing a new level of commentary. I know I upset a few people, and to them, at the time, I apologised for doing that, but not for the comments per se.

    I have always been a staunch supporter of commentary which added to the discourse, no matter how much it went against my views, but not that which is just plain crap, as was the case with the aforementioned “Jammy March”. Nothing was added to the commentary by any single piece of responsorial prose added by that person.

    I take this opportunity to thank Michael for his difficult decision to “bushel-basket” the light of that person’s comments.


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