Government vows to tackle child abuse online
In a speech on 26 June 2019 the Home Secretary Sajid Javid reaffirmed his earlier promise to the NSPCC and the UK to keep children safe from sexual abuse. In this latest speech he confirmed that he had set his sights on keeping children safe online in a national strategy.
The NSPCC have confirmed new police figures that show predators are using the web to commit 22 sex abuse crimes a day, with more than 8,200 child sex abuse crimes recorded in Britain last year linked to the internet. This number has doubled since police started recording cyber related sex crimes four years ago. The chief executive of the NSPCC, Peter Wanless, confirmed the figures were taken from 40 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and are merely ‘the tip of the iceberg’.
‘Reports in the UK of online child abuse images are now 10 times greater than in 2013’
Globally there are nearly 3 million accounts registered on child sexual abuse sites on the dark web, with around 140,000 of those from the UK.
Children are increasingly being groomed on social media, image sharing or live-streaming sites. Many abusers set up fake online presences to trap victims and arrange meetings with them. Children are being blackmailed into sending indecent images with the threat of them being made public. Often predators manipulate children to perform sex acts on the phone, in video calls and in person.
The Home Secretary fears new risks will continue to emerge as the digital landscape evolves and has concerns around companies deliberately designing their systems in a way that makes it harder to protect children.
An example of this is social media platforms encrypting messaging services used by children so not even their own staff can view the content of the emails. It is feared this move will lead to more children being groomed and abused particularly as these platforms can have millions of users. It has been described by such companies as a "trade off" between greater privacy - which many users want - and an increased risk of harm. The NSPCC’s response is that this puts profits and secrecy above safety.
The Home Secretary confirmed that the government supports strong encryption but it is vital that there is an ongoing, detailed dialogue between the government and social media companies on the implications of their proposals.
Where are we now?
In order to tackle the online threat the Home Secretary outlined a number of incentives that have been imposed or that are to be implemented in the near future.
Within these incentives were:
- An increased police budget to allow extra officers to deal with online crimes
- Tougher charges available to undercover officers for the predators they expose
- Improvements are being rolled out this year to the UK’s child abuse database to help police forces identify those creating or sharing images online
- Further investments in Artificial Intelligence, which will help officers to identify victims and offenders and speed up the identification of known abuse material
- Advertising experts are coming to the Home Office to investigate promotions for well-known brands appearing on child sexual abuse sites and co-funding research into how they can cut off this funding stream
- A team of experts developing an anti-grooming tool at the Microsoft-led Hackathon
However, it was warned that if tech companies do not go far enough and fast enough to provide safety to children the government will force them to act.
The proposals in the Online Harms White Paper will deliver that promise, aiming to implement a legal duty of care for firms to protect against children by an independent regulator.
An interim code of practice will be published later this year to leave no doubt what the companies must do to protect children from the online threat.
The huge growth in online predators is extremely concerning. It is pleasing that the NSPCC, government and police are striving to reduce these figures.
The difficulty for the government will be balancing the right to privacy and protecting children. Whilst online abuse must be tackled, many innocent users of social media platforms depend upon the protection of their personal data and privacy, and these rights also need be considered. It will be interesting to see how this is addressed. Companies and insurers will also need to carefully analyse the practice if there is to be a duty of care imposed; to ensure this duty is adhered to in order to protect children and to prevent a potential civil liability where abuse has occurred online. This is indeed a developing area and the interim code of practice is eagerly anticipated.
For more information, please contact Nicola Markie