A crisis of modern society? The internet and child sexual abuse

The second hearing of IICSA’s thematic investigation in to child sexual abuse and the internet was focused on the steps being taken by the internet industry and government bodies. By the ‘internet industry’, IICSA means internet service providers, software companies, social media companies, providers of search engines and those who provide email and messaging services and cloud storage. Whilst a number of representatives from the internet industry gave evidence, none of them applied for core participant status. The institutional core participants were the Home Office, the Internet Watch Foundation, the National Crime Agency, the National Police Chief’s Council and the Metropolitan Police Service. There were three complainant core participants who gave evidence of the direct impact on their lives of being abused in connection with the internet.

IICSA summarises online facilitated child abuse as follows:

  • Indecent images of children which may be created, distributed, downloaded and possessed
  • Grooming which can involve sexual communication with a child, arranging and meeting the child following such communication
  • Live streaming of child abuse

Tackling all aspects of online facilitated child abuse is a huge task. In its 2018 Serious & Organised Crime Strategy the Government set out the expectations of internet companies – that they need to be at the forefront of efforts to deny offenders the opportunity to access children and child sexual material via their platforms and services. The internet industry witnesses gave evidence of how they were seeking to do that, some with greater focus and success than others, but the general impression from the hearing was that there was a need for the efforts to be greater and quicker. When IICSA publishes its report in this investigation, expected early next year, it is reasonable to assume there will be a wide range of recommendations that the internet industry should implement. However there is no need to wait for the report as many suggestions and proposals were made from those giving evidence. The perception from the evidence is that the internet industry has been reactive and its needs to be proactive.

We have summarised in the chart below many of the proposal mentioned. It is not just the internet industry which needs to address the problem, but also society as a whole as can be seen for example by the proposals around the need for better education of children, parents and childcare professionals.

The internet is worldwide and that creates additional challenges but also opportunities for greater working together to ensure child safety around the globe. In 1996 18% of the world’s known child sexual abuse imagery was hosted in the UK, since 2003 that has been less than 1% but that does not mean there has been 17% less imagery, it has just moved elsewhere so whilst in 2018 there were only 41 web pages found and removed in the UK, in the Netherlands there were 48,900 such pages. Much of the abuse that is live streamed emanates from South-east Asia however research by IWF in 2018 found that commonly encountered live streaming involved white girls from western backgrounds filmed in a home setting. The need for a co-ordinated approach is clear, governments can seek to work together but the organisations which already have the greatest worldwide reach are the big internet industry professionals.

The evidence given by the individual core participants described how they were abused online (and in one case offline too). The abusers of all three have been given custodial sentences. Those who were abused solely online are not eligible for a payment from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, despite their abuser serving a lengthy sentence. Their counsel noted that there was little or no legal redress open to them, they did not have as the law stands a cause of action against the technology companies which provided the platforms through which the abuse took place.

The Online Harms White Paper, currently out for consultation, proposes the creation of a statutory duty of care. If implemented will that offer a route for redress? Better however would be actions which prevented the abuse from occurring in the first place. Organisations involved with children and those involved in the internet industry should be considering which of the proposals outlined below they can start to action now.

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jefferson_p_web Written by Paula Jefferson, partner and head of abuse and neglect at BLM

Online facilitated child sexual abuse in numbers

The challenges which arise from the internet with regard to the safety of children are huge. IICSA, in a thematic investigation, is seeking to look at the issue and in due course will make recommendations for change. There have been two hearings, the first in January 2018 considered evidence in relating to the law enforcement response to online-facilitated child sexual abuse. In May this year a second hearing considered the adequacy of the response of the internet industry and government to such abuse. During this week on the Abuse News Blog we will publish a series of blogs which comment on not just the IICSA hearings but also wider matters relating to the internet and child sexual abuse.

The scale and impact of the internet in connection with child sexual abuse can be seen from some of the statistics . The numbers statistics cited in the recent IICSA hearing:

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Written by Paula Jefferson, partner and head of the Abuse and Neglect Team at BLM

Irish High Court grants leave to sue State Agencies over failure to protect from child abuse

On Wednesday this week Mr Justice Peter Kelly, President of the Irish High Court granted leave to initiate legal action against State Agencies on behalf of a woman who was allegedly sexually abused by more than 12 men when she was a child. The proposed legal action against the State Agencies is to be based on their failure to protect her from the alleged abuse.

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IICSA report – the Archdiocese of Birmingham

The strategic responsibility and focus which governing bodies must have for safeguarding can now be seen from the IICSA report published today. As part of the Roman Catholic Investigation, IICSA considered the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The case study considered the extent of abuse, failures to protect children, adequacy of responses, lessons learned and changes thereafter implemented.

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Further IICSA progress

The report in the Roman Catholic investigation – Archdiocese of Birmingham case study will be published today.  IICSA has meanwhile announced a number of new dates and further research.

Public hearings

Religious organisations and settings – a two week hearing will commence on 16 March 2020.

All public hearings will have concluded by November 2020.

Research

IICSA has undertaken research in connection with various investigations and themes. It has now announced a new research project focused on understanding how abuse impacts different communities, in particular in the case of this project black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. In undertaking this research IICSA hopes to find out about:

  • barriers to disclosure and reporting of child sexual abuse in BAME communities in England and Wales.
  • the nature of support victims and survivors in these communities receive in relation to child sexual abuse.
  • the views of individuals from BAME communities on, and experiences of, interactions with institutions in relation to child sexual abuse (for example, education, support services, police).

The project will include a literature review, focus groups held within a small number of case study areas in England & Wales and some one to one interviews. The field work will be undertaken in autumn 2019 and the research report will be published in autumn 2020.


jefferson_p_web Paula Jefferson, Partner, BLM

PSNI to review historic abuse allegations

As we develop a greater understanding of the impact of abuse on victims and the wide range of reactions to the abuse, and as police and prosecutors receive greater training, it is likely that old cases, previously dismissed or overlooked, will be re-examined. Cross referencing across police areas may well lead to reactivation of older allegations being given the credibility not appreciated before.

This has occurred in County Fermanagh where the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has created a team of officers to look into allegations of abuse going back over decades.  A number of the allegations name a former bus driver as the abuser; some of the allegations are against un-named individuals who were described as well known in the area including “prominent businessmen”.

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Progress made in HIAI recommendations

It has been announced that discussions between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Head of Civil Service, David Sterling, have made some progress on the approach to the recommendations made by Sir Anthony Hart following the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI).

The HIAI made a number of recommendations in 2017 but the political impasse in NI has meant that nothing has happened in regard to the implementation of those recommendations.  Earlier this year a consultation process on draft legislation generated a significant number of responses.

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