Sexual Abuse and the Internet – Time for Change
In recent years we have seen stories of non-recent sexual abuse hit the headlines time and again. As a nation, we have acknowledged the extent of non-recent child sexual abuse and the damage it has done. As a result, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was established to investigate the failure of our country’s institutions to safeguard children.
To assume, however, that child sexual abuse is either a historic problem or a problem that is being kept under control by a change in attitudes, the creation of safeguarding and the work of the police, is a grave misjudgement. There is one place in which children are more unsafe than ever – the internet.
IICSA findings on online child sexual abuse
At its recent public hearing, the Inquiry heard that police forces in England and Wales have seen a 700% increase in reports of online child sexual abuse since 2012-2013. Crucially, however, figures like these relate to instances of child sexual abuse that have been reported. Indeed, the Inquiry also heard that there are significant gaps in the current understanding of the scale of online-facilitated child sexual abuse.
Industry representatives such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft spoke about their efforts to tackle the problem at this hearing. The National Crime Agency, however, hit back, highlighting some of the measures that could have – yet have not – been taken. Among the list was the pre-screening of images prior to their upload and identification verification. The point was made that while identification verification is employed in order to set up an online bank account or to claim a refund for a delayed train, there is nothing to stop an adult from opening a Facebook account with a fake date of birth and portraying themselves as a child.
The National Crime Agency’s closing submissions, delivered by Neil Sheldon QC, considered the following:
Google’s systems being infected by some form of malware which took its search engine down for an hour or two would be a crisis. A cyber attack which stole the financial information of an internet company’s customers would be a crisis. The resources that are devoted by these companies to keeping their platforms and services secure from this type of attack are enormous, and they are remarkably effective. We can perhaps imagine their response were they to fail. And so we pose the question of whether the fact that, on a daily basis, the platforms and services provided by these companies are used to facilitate the sexual abuse of children is treated as the crisis that it undoubtedly constitutes? Is it given the priority it deserves? Does the trajectory of the industry response in this area match the trajectory of its profits?
Neil Sheldon QC answered this question with a resounding no.
We can be reassured, however, that while tech giants are not taking greater responsibility for the increasing scale of online-facilitated child sexual abuse, the British government is.
Online Harms White Paper and proposed legislation
The Online Harms White Paper, published on 8 April 2019, sets out the government’s plans for a package of online safety measures to protect users’ safety online. It proposes establishing a new statutory duty of care and a regulator to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users.
The White Paper states that, “Companies will be required to take stringent action – proactive and reactive – to monitor and address the growing and evolving threat and to tackle all manifestations of child sexual exploitation and abuse activity, including bearing down on the proliferation of imagery and taking necessary steps to target grooming and live streaming.”
It is also states that if the regulator has found a breach of the statutory duty of care, that decision and the evidence that has led to it will be available to the individual to use in any private legal action.
At Bolt Burdon Kemp, we bring legal action against religious and charitable organisations such as the Catholic Church, the Cadets and the Scouts. If tech giants do not take the responsibility they should, and if this proposed legislation does not force their hand, will we be adding defendants such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to this list?
Ana Kriegal and social media regulation
In a recent case in Ireland, a 14 year old girl, Ana Kriegal, was lured to a derelict farmhouse, sexually assaulted and murdered by her peers, two 13 year old boys. The result was that the boys became the youngest people in Irish history to be convicted of murder. Their identification was banned. Despite the ban, the boys’ photographs soon appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Representatives of the social media giants were summarily hauled before a judge to face contempt of court proceedings over the publication of these photographs. What is so sad about this case, however, is what was able to happen prior to Ana’s murder.
According to the Guardian, Ana had “sought to connect with peers on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat and other platforms only to end up being bullied – targeted for sexual innuendo and threats. One comment on her YouTube channel expressed a desire to “have her executed”.” Further, as part of the investigation, the police found that one of the boys had downloaded thousands of images of pornography and had searched for both child pornography and animal pornography.
We hope that in the future, internet industry representatives will be brought before the courts for not protecting children in the first place, and not after the fact for breaching reporting restrictions.
At Bolt Burdon Kemp we are very aware of the opportunities the internet creates for predators. For more information on the potential dangers of the internet and the state of the law, see our Campaigns: “Sexting: Child Abuse in the Digital Age” and “Revenge Porn Ruins Lives, Call it what it is: Sexual Abuse”.
Siobhan Crawford is an associate solicitor in the Abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Siobhan free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4886 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Abuse team will contact you. Find out more about the Abuse team.