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Inquiry report finds risk of immeasurable harm to children from internet

12 March 2020

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has today (12 March) published its report on the Internet and Child Sexual Abuse.

The report highlights an explosion in child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet; since 2016, approximately 400 to 450 people are arrested in the UK for related offences each month. Despite technological advances to detect and prevent online child sexual abuse, law enforcement is struggling to keep up. 

The report shines a light on the scale of child sexual abuse facilitated online, finding that the number of indecent images of children in circulation worldwide is in the many millions, with some images reaching unprecedented levels of depravity. It is still possible to access such imagery from common search engines in only “three clicks”. The report concludes that internet companies must do more to pre-screen material before it is uploaded to their platforms and systems.  

During 14 days of public hearings in January 2018 and May 2019, the Inquiry heard distressing accounts from those directly affected by child sexual abuse facilitated online; the report describes the harm done to children and their families through online abuse as incalculable.  

“You don’t know where these images will end up ... and that is an awful feeling, thinking that paedophiles can just look online and get whatever they want ... it’s scary”.  IN-A3, page 28

The Inquiry heard evidence that the UK is “the third greatest consumer in the world of the live streaming of abuse”. The report describes the case of a brother and sister who were groomed online by Anthony O’Connor, a 57 year old man who posed as a 22 year old woman. O’Connor manipulated 12 year old IN-A2 to sexually touch his 13 year old sister IN-A1. He later started to make IN-A1 perform sexual acts for him over webcam and said that if she did not do as he asked, images of the siblings together would be shared online. 

The report highlights that live-streamed abuse can be accessed for little more than £1, offering encouragement to would-be offenders to engage in child sexual abuse on a significant scale.

In addition to law enforcement and government, the Inquiry also heard evidence from internet companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

The report finds that industry responses appeared reactive rather than proactive; action seemed driven by a desire to avoid reputational damage rather than to prioritise protection of children.

The report concludes that internet companies failed to demonstrate that they were fully aware of the scale of underage social media use. It describes how online age verification processes can easily be subverted by children under 13; an age group at significant risk of being groomed. The lack of a comprehensive plan from industry and government to combat this problem should be urgently addressed.

Professor Alexis Jay, Chair of the Inquiry, said: 

“The serious threat of child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet is an urgent problem which cannot be overstated.   

“Despite industry advances in technology to detect and combat online facilitated abuse, the risk of immeasurable harm to children and their families shows no sign of diminishing. 

“The Panel and I hope this report and its recommendations lead internet companies, law enforcement and government to implement vital measures to prioritise the protection of children and prevent abuse facilitated online.”

 

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