Regulating the Internet – the Online Harms White Paper consultation

There is no doubt that there is a need and a public desire for regulation of the internet and social media to protect the vulnerable. In April this year, the government published its Online Harms White Paper, which sets out its proposals to make the UK the safest country in the world to be online.  It’s described as “a world-leading package of online safety measures that also supports innovation and a thriving digital economy”, and its two top priorities are to tackle unlawful and unacceptable activity online, including Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CSEA) online.  A consultation on the white paper is currently live, with responses due by  11.59pm on 1 July 2019.

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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