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5.1 The internet

The Inquiry’s work so far

The ‘Internet and child sexual abuse’ investigation is examining how institutions have responded to child sexual abuse and exploitation facilitated by the internet.[1] This includes sexual abuse involving the sharing of child sexual abuse images, viewing or directing sexual abuse online, grooming, ‘sexting’ and any other means of using the internet to facilitate child sexual abuse.

Government responsibility for tackling online child sexual abuse in England and Wales

England

The Home Office is responsible for setting policing policy in England and Wales. This includes responsibility for the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection command.

The Department for Education is responsible for policies on children's services and education in England. This includes ensuring that schools and colleges safeguard pupils from online child sexual abuse. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading the UK Government's Internet Safety Strategy.

Wales

Education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Government, which is responsible for ensuring that children and young people are educated about the risks of online child sexual abuse.

The first public hearing on the investigation examined how law enforcement agencies respond to child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet. The Inquiry also commissioned three reviews of existing research to inform the investigation. These reviews considered the behaviours and characteristics of perpetrators online,[2] the vulnerabilities and characteristics of victims online,[3] and what is known about the scale of online child sexual abuse.[4] The Inquiry has also spoken to children and young people about online child sexual abuse and staying safe online.

This section summarises emerging issues within the investigation about the nature and scale of online child sexual abuse and the response of law enforcement. As the investigation progresses, a further hearing will take place on matters including the internet industry’s response to online child sexual abuse.

Issues considered

Victims of online child sexual abuse

The review of existing research on the scale and nature of online child sexual abuse makes it clear that this is a complex and growing problem.[5] It notes that children are becoming more exposed to the risks of online child sexual abuse as they are spending more time online and going online at younger ages.

Research shows that adverse childhood experiences such as physical abuse and exposure to parental conflict make children more vulnerable to online victimisation. It also notes that the number of young children who are subject to online child sexual abuse is likely to be under-reported.[6]

Breck Bednar

In February 2014, Breck Bednar was murdered by a man who had groomed him online. His mother, Ms LaFave, gave evidence to the Inquiry at the internet investigation’s public hearing in January 2018.

Ms LaFave’s 14-year-old son Breck was murdered by Lewis Daynes, then aged 18. Daynes and Breck were part of an online gaming community set up by Daynes. Over a period of time, Daynes groomed Breck, manipulated him and turned him against his mother.

Ms LaFave became increasingly concerned that Breck was being groomed by Daynes, and sought advice from friends, neighbours and the school where she worked. She also reported her concerns to Surrey Police but they took no further action.

Daynes went to considerable lengths to maintain contact with Breck. He persuaded Breck to visit him at his home, encouraging Breck to lie to his parents about whom he was visiting. While at Daynes' house, Daynes murdered Breck.

The sentencing judge found that the murder was driven by sexual or sadistic motivation and Daynes was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 25 years. Surrey Police were subsequently criticised in an Independent Police Complaints Commission report for how they handled Ms LaFave’s report.

Ms LaFave has established the Breck Foundation – a charity that raises awareness about staying safe online.

When speaking to children and young people directly, the Inquiry was told that more should be done to empower and equip them to remove themselves from uncomfortable situations online. Children and young people also told the Inquiry that online threats are one of their two main safety concerns in relation to sexual abuse (the other being the threat of strangers carrying out sexual abuse), and that it is important that they know how to use the internet and social media safely.

As the investigation progresses, the Inquiry will continue to look into what statutory authorities and industry are doing to protect children online.

Perpetrators of online child sexual abuse

As existing research indicates that there is an under-reporting of online child sexual abuse, information about the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse cannot be comprehensive. However, the studies that are available suggest that perpetrators of online child sexual abuse have a similar demographic profile to perpetrators who abuse in person[7] but are less likely to have criminal records already.

Existing research suggests that some perpetrators of online child sexual abuse only carry out sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, rather than seeking children for contact sexual abuse. It also indicates that perpetrators of online child sexual abuse increasingly use technology and online tactics so that they can continue offending without detection for as long as possible. This includes use of the Darknet: parts of the internet that are only accessible via specialised software that can mask the address of a user’s device so that they can browse the internet while ensuring that their identity remains hidden.

Institutional responses to online child sexual abuse

At its recent public hearing, the Inquiry heard that reports of online child sexual abuse are increasing significantly. Police forces have seen a 700% increase in referrals since 2012-13 and the National Crime Agency received an average of 3,500 referrals a month by the end of August 2016​ (an increase from approximately 400 referrals received per month in 2010)​. Referrals can include child sexual abuse images found online, viral images (for example, images that have been distributed as people have been outraged by what they have seen) and images that are not, following investigation, considered indecent images of children. Other evidence provided at the hearing noted that there has been a particular increase in the numbers of reports to the police involving indecent images shared by under 18s (often referred to as ‘sexting’).

The Inquiry heard that there are significant challenges in tackling child sexual abuse due to advances in technology and the way law enforcement operates. For example, law enforcement agencies face particular difficulties in investigating referrals, in identifying online perpetrators who use technology to mask their identity and location, in prioritising responses against perpetrators who pose the highest threat to children and in charging overseas perpetrators who sexually abuse children online in the UK.

Next steps

In preparation for a second public hearing, the investigation will look at the internet industry’s responses to online child sexual abuse. It will also involve examining the effectiveness of online safety education programmes delivered in schools in England and Wales.

An investigation report on the internet will be published following the second public hearing and will set out the Inquiry’s findings. Annex A to this report includes a progress report on the investigation.

References

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