I’m Starting a New Child Protection Nonprofit. Here’s Why.

Days before the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) passed the Senate last month, Senator Rob Portman described the legislation — which he touted as a measure to reduce the sexual trafficking of children — as “truly nonpartisan, not just bipartisan.” It’s true that child protection, like national security, is a value that most of us place above politics, and that this explains the bipartisan support that swept SESTA into law.

But ironically, the strong bipartisan support that most child protection laws receive by default means that they don’t undergo the same careful scrutiny as bills covering more contentious issues. This creates a perverse incentive for laws to be packaged as child protection laws, even if their targets are broader. SESTA is an example of this, in that it targeted adult sex workers and Internet platforms rather than child sex abusers, and in the wake of its passage, the law has been hitting those targets hard.

So in another sense, child protection isn’t in fact above politics at all, or at least not above the failures in our political process. At worst, this can manifest in the deliberate weaponization of child sexual abuse survivors to muster public support for laws with a hidden agenda. But just as often, it may merely mean that a law sails through Congress without anyone paying adequate attention to its flaws, which can result in the law later being found unconstitutional, or being used to prosecute the very children that it was meant to protect.

Child protection isn’t in fact above politics at all, or at least not above the failures in our political process.

It’s good that policymakers take child abuse so seriously. It’s not so good that decision-making about stopping child abuse takes place in a mindset that discourages critical analysis of child protection proposals. I believe that children deserve to be protected by laws and policies that are effective, fair, and constitutionally sound. If we settle for any old censorship bill just so long as the words “child sex trafficking” are included in it, we are failing children, and may be hurting other innocents.

Why I’m Taking This Personally

Condemning such flawed or bogus child protection laws should not be misconstrued as a lack of support for the protection of children, although it frequently is. It distresses me that digital rights advocates are sometimes misleadingly accused of being part of the problem of child sexual abuse online, due to their opposition to flawed laws like SESTA, and their support for end-to-end encryption technologies as used in products like secure messaging apps and Tor.

As a father myself I am as horrified as anyone by the misuse of Internet platforms and applications by child abusers, yet I realize that these general-purpose platforms and applications aren’t the problem. Banning or regulating their availability does nothing to address the underlying causes of child sexual abuse, while it does much to harm the constitutionally protected rights and freedoms of millions of innocent Internet users around the world, with the greatest impact being felt by repressed minorities.

Even so, it’s true that since I don’t work for an organization with expertise in this area, I haven’t been in a position to easily put forward a positive agenda for child protection, in substitution for the repressive or misguided measures that I often end up opposing. As an activist who cares about child protection, human rights, and sexual freedom, my inability to publicly align these values has been weighing on me over the past year, until ultimately I have decided that that I have to do something about it.

But what? I’m no expert in child sexual abuse prevention, though I do believe in solving problems through an evidence-based, scientific approach, and have skills in advocacy and community organizing. So for the past year I’ve done a lot of reading of scholarly research, a lot of learning, and a lot of talking with a diverse group of people and organizations who do have the expertise that I lack.

It turned out that there were others who shared my concerns about child protection proposals too frequently being both ineffective and unconstitutional. I also discovered that many of my preconceptions about child sexual abuse and those who commit it were untrue. So — not quite in the way I had first envisioned — I began linking up with child protection experts and civil rights groups who who shared my view that we could do a better job of child protection if policymakers made better informed decisions on the basis of accurate facts and evidence.

We could do a better job of child protection if policymakers made better informed decisions on the basis of accurate facts and evidence.

Unfortunately, impartially collecting such evidence and advocating for child protection solutions that respect human and civil rights doesn’t seem to be a priority for any existing organization. As a result, poorly-conceived child protection measures commonly go unchallenged by other child protection groups, including measures that are not science-based, those that harm or stigmatize those who are not child abusers, and even measures that themselves actually directly do harm to children.

Introducing the Prostasia Foundation

So today I’m announcing that I’m getting together with child sexual abuse survivors, and with a diverse group of experts in child protection, psychology, sexuality, criminal justice, and the sex industry, to form a new child protection organization — the Prostasia Foundation.

Like what I write on Medium, my involvement with this new organization is independent of my employer, and fills a gap that I don’t think that I could fill in a pure digital rights advocacy organization. I will be reducing my hours in my day job for now, so that I can devote that time to bootstrapping Prostasia.

Unlike any other existing child protection organization, Prostasia would be committed to upholding the three values that it needs to in order to ensure that child protection laws and policies are effective, fact-based, and constitutional:

  1. Child protection is, and will always remain, Prostasia’s principal and overriding value. This will be reflected in a well-informed positive agenda for child protection, that is compatible with our fundamental rights and freedoms as a society. Our priority will be on preventing child sexual abuse before it happens, rather than merely tracking down and punishing those who have already offended, at which point our society has already failed.
  2. Human and civil rights are the second value that Prostasia will uphold in its work. Drawing on advice from the diversity of groups impacted by child protection measures, we will gather the expertise, and where necessary commission the research, necessary to critically evaluate proposed child protection measures such as laws, platform policies, and self-regulatory agreements, to ensure that they are effective, fair, and constitutional.
  3. Finally, Prostasia will also be sex-positive. Too many people subscribe to the (often homophobic or transphobic) view that tolerance of sexual diversity and non-traditional sexual behaviors opens the door to accepting child abuse. This must never be the case. While placing children first, we will be critical of purported child protection measures that are really aimed at regulating consensual sexual activity between adults, adult sex work, or age-appropriate sexual behaviors between older teens.

By combining these three values with a rigorously evidence-based approach and a commitment to broad and inclusive community consultation, Prostasia will be uniquely equipped to address difficult questions that other organizations avoid, and to direct the results of this research into policy processes aimed at preventing child sexual abuse, including the sharing of child sexual abuse imagery, before it happens.

But to make the Prostasia Foundation happen, we’re going to need your help. Would you like to see decisions around child protection being based on sound and independent research, with the principle objective of reducing child sexual offending, and while upholding the highest values of the society that we would like our children to grow up in? If so then I would invite you to read more about the Prostasia Foundation and to donate a few dollars or some Bitcoin to help kick it off.