Twitter LinkedIn

UK lawmakers should extend Online Safety Bill protections to endangered wildlife

Dr. Mark Jones of the Born Free Foundation, Dr. Rowan Martin of the World Parrot Trust and Gretchen Peters of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online write on the opportunity to tackle wildlife trafficking through the Online Safety Bill.

September 2023

As lawmakers in Westminster put finishing touches on a landmark bill aiming to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online, we urge Parliament to extend that safety net to endangered wildlife.

The Internet has transformed how wildlife traffickers operate, in much the same way as has occurred in other serious crime sectors, including drugs, fraud and child sex trafficking.

The Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), which groups more than 40 researchers from around the world, has documented how endangered exotic pets and wildlife products are traded widely on social media platforms, chiefly Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WeChat.

Recommendation algorithms on platforms sites enable wildlife traffickers to market to and communicate with buyers at a dizzying pace, amplifying the extinction risk for creatures great and small, including elephants, big cats, apes, reptiles, parrots, and even tarantulas.

This vast, unregulated trade in live animals and their parts is not only illegal, it also exacerbates risk of another animal-human spillover event, such as the ones that caused Ebola, HIV and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We applaud the government’s decision last week to swing behind Clause 64, which will require tech companies to implement systems and processes to identify and remove content encouraging or facilitating animal torture and abuse.

Support for Clause 64 grew after a shocking BBC documentary went viral, exposing how buyers in the UK and other places were using social media platforms to commission sadistic content featuring the torture of monkeys.

The horrifying videos rightly outraged the British public, spurring lawmakers to take action. As Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said, Britain is “a nation of animal lovers and the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards worldwide.”

The UK has also been a world leader in fighting wildlife trafficking. A decade ago, Britain joined 41 other nations in a pledge to “treat poaching and trafficking as a serious organized crime in the same category as drugs, arms and people trafficking.” In 2018, Britain declared its resolve to counter the global extinction crisis, calling the illegal wildlife trade “a great threat to national and regional security.”

Yet, as the Online Safety Bill nears passage, wildlife trafficking remains the only serious crime category that’s not specifically identified as a priority crime under Schedule 7.

Extending the review under clause 64 to include wildlife trafficking offences would be a moderate, reasoned expansion to the schedule, especially since the National Wildlife Crime Unit has said virtually all domestic investigations now have a social media or eCommerce component to them, and many converge with other serious crime.

Specifically, we propose the inclusion of offences under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2018 (COTES), namely the display for commercial purposes and offering for sale of any species listed by CITES, the UN Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, without proof of origin or a valid certificate.

When it is adopted, Britain’s Online Safety Bill will be one of the world’s most forward-leaning efforts to regulate and reduce illicit and exploitative activity online.

Britain has the chance to remain a vanguard in wildlife conservation, and set a vital precedent in conservation that other nations will likely follow.

Dr. Mark Jones
is Head of Policy at the Born Free Foundation. Dr. Rowan Martin is Director of Bird Trade Programmes with the World Parrot Trust. Gretchen Peters is Executive Director at the Alliance to Counter Crime Online.

The opinions expressed in this blog are held by the author and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.