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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Internet Investigation Report

A.2: Scope of the investigation

10. As set out in the definition of scope,[1] this investigation examined the nature and extent of the use of the internet to facilitate child sexual abuse, including by sharing indecent images of children, viewing or directing the abuse of children via online streaming or video conferencing, and grooming or otherwise coordinating contact offences against children. It also considered the experiences of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet, and the adequacy of the response of government, law enforcement and the internet industry to child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet.

11. The Inquiry is aware that the protection of those using the internet is an area of ongoing and constant development. For example, in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019, the government re-stated its commitment to progressing the Online Harms Bill. We therefore anticipate returning to these issues in the Inquiry’s final report.

12. For the purposes of this investigation, the Inquiry adopted a broad definition of ‘industry’. We therefore include in industry:

  • the internet service providers (ISPs) and communication service providers (CSPs) such as BT;
  • software companies such as Microsoft;
  • social media platforms such as Facebook;
  • providers of search engines such as Google; and
  • those who provide email and messaging services and cloud storage such as Apple.

13. Some companies provide more than one service; for example, Google’s services include Google Chrome (web browser), Gmail (email service), YouTube (video-sharing website), and Google Drive (online storage for storing and sharing digital files).

14. When examining the institutional responses to online-facilitated child sexual abuse, the Inquiry identified three types of offending in relation to which the response could most easily be identified and understood.

14.1. Indecent images of children: An indecent image of a child is a photograph or pseudo-photograph[2] of a child under the age of 18 that is deemed to be indecent. An indecent image is likely to show a child in a sexual pose; the child may be clothed or in varying states of undress or naked. It may include the child being involved in penetrative and non-penetrative sexual activity. There are criminal offences for those who download, possess and distribute such imagery (under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988). ‘First-generation imagery’ is a child sexual abuse image taken by an adult that has not previously been recorded by law enforcement or industry as indecent. A naked or partially naked image of a child taken by the child himself/herself is known as ‘self-generated imagery’.

14.2. Grooming of a child: Grooming is the process by which a perpetrator ‘prepares’ a child for sexual abuse. In terms of criminal offences it can involve the adult sending a sexual message to a child (section 15A, the Sexual Offences Act 2003) or arranging to meet a child following such communication (section 15, the Sexual Offences Act 2003).

14.3. Live streaming of child sexual abuse: Live streaming is the broadcasting of real-time, live footage of a child being sexually abused over the internet. Whilst there is no specific criminal offence of ‘live streaming’, an offender who films an act of child sexual abuse can be prosecuted for ‘creating’ an indecent film (under section 1, the Protection of Children Act 1978).

15. While this report separately analyses the institutional response to these three forms of abuse, these types of harm are not always independent of each other and there can be considerable overlap. For example, there is evidence that grooming can lead to a child being asked to take indecent images of themselves or to sexual acts being video recorded. Often those perpetrators who come before the criminal courts for child sexual abuse contact offences are found to be in possession of indecent images of children.

16. The majority of websites that host indecent images of children are accessed via the open web.[3] However, the Inquiry also heard evidence about offending that takes place on the dark web (or dark net). This is part of the world wide web that is only accessible by means of specialist software and cannot be accessed through well-known search engines. The dark web is often used to host forums in which images and ideas can be exchanged amongst people with an interest in sexually abusing children. At any one time, the dark web is home to approximately 30,000 live sites, just under half of which are considered to contain criminal content, including but not limited to child sexual abuse and exploitation content.


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