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NCA backs new duties for tech giants to curb fraud and abuse

The National Crime Agency has backed new legislation to force tech companies to stop child abuse images being published on the web and tackle online fraud.

The NCA said the Online Safety Bill will be a significant step forward by creating penalties for tech firms which do not stop harmful content.

The Bill, announced in this week’s Queen’s Speech, will give the media regulator Ofcom the power to fine firms that fail to prevent criminal activity online.

It focuses on financial offences and crimes against children.

Online fraud is now the biggest – and most expensive – crime affecting the UK. The pensions industry reports the cost is now £4bn a year.

Phishing scams, online auction fraud and even the creation of fake government agencies are among the tactics that forces want stopped.

Forces and the agency are focused on targeting offenders but they are increasingly concerned about the amount of material being published on the web.

The agency revealed that between April and December last year, the agency identified and safeguarded 10,000 children that were victims of online abuse. It wants the web industries to tackle the publishing and sharing of images online and through apps.

Rob Jones, the NCA’s Director of Threat Leadership, said: “We need technology and social media companies to match this intensity, building in safety by design and closing down all avenues for offenders to exploit their functions. 

“We must move to a place of zero tolerance for the presence of such material online in order to raise the bar to offending, and most importantly protect children.”

But campaigners have already warned the legislation, which is being led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has too many clauses and exceptions to be effective.

Tony Stower, director of external engagement at the 5Rights Foundation, said:  “Tech companies are investing an awful lot of money in lobbying both at a UK and EU level to make sure the regulation is watered down and doesn’t have the impact that children and other users need it to have.”

Policing leaders have warned that legislation covering online activity needs to be toughened and online companies need to be pro-active as forces should not have to be dealing with the volume of offences that could be stopped by private firms.

Earlier this month the Police Foundation said tech firms could do more.

The report argued: “With over 17 million reports of online child sexual abuse imagery reported globally in 2019, the growing number of offences could be significantly reduced through improved use of technology.

“For example, website warnings and pop ups could be used more systematically to deter potential viewers of abusive imagery and greater use of identity verification could create safer spaces for children online.”

The report also argued that consumer-style legislation could reduce online fraud.

Report author Rick Muir said: “Investment scams are openly promoted
on the internet via Google and other websites. Legislation could make it clear that platforms such as Google bear legal liability for the financial promotions they pass on, at least to the same degree as traditional publishers.

"This would mean that an online publisher would have to ensure that any financial promotion they communicate has been approved by
an authorised person.”

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