Challenges and concerns for children in their use of the internet

As noted in our blogs earlier this week the IICSA investigation into the internet is well underway.

The internet plays such a huge role in all of our lives, not least for Generation Z – the post-millennial generation, born 1995 to 2010 – who most likely will not have known a time when it did not exist. Many worrying stories continually dominate the headlines where technology seems less of a boon (curiously, the name of an app which ranks higher in Google’s search engine than the word itself) in the lives of children and young people.

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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

The challenges posed by online grooming

Social media use as we have already reported this week is prevalent among children, with an estimated 20% of children aged 8 to 11 years old said to have a social media profile in the UK, notwithstanding that the social media providers require all users to be over age 13 before having their own profile. The figure rises to 70% among children aged 12 to 15 years old1. The potential for online grooming is huge and is already being exploited as we have noted when commenting on the rise of sexting.

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Learning from jurisdictions overseas and IICSA research

Much work has already been completed in jurisdictions outside of England & Wales about preventing and responding to child sexual abuse (“CSA”). Tomorrow (12 April) the IICSA is holding a seminar about best practice overseas to coincide with the publication of a report by the University of Central Lancashire on the same topic. The seminar will be held at the International Dispute Resolution Centre, London and is open to the public to attend.

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