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Online Safety Bill a 'once in a lifetime' chance to protect children

The NPCC lead for Child Protection, Merseyside Police DCC Ian Critchley, speaks to Police Oracle about what he sees as vital new enforcement arrangements included in upcoming legislation

Without a flicker of hesitation, the NPCC Child Protection lead calls the Online Safety Bill "as big an opportunity as we’ve ever had" to protect children from the dangers of the internet.

As the House of Commons prepares to sit for the bill's report stage on January 16, DCC Ian Critchley spoke to Police Oracle about the importance of this legislation, and why it can't come quick enough.

While DCC Critchley believes policing has made "huge strides forward" in its efforts to protect young people by investing in online child abuse investigation teams, digital forensics and in undercover work, his view is that legislation is vital to continuing that progress.

He told Police Oracle that law enforcement - Home Office forces and the NCA - arrested over 800 offenders a month across the most recent quarter, safeguarding more than 1,000 young people each month during the same time period.

And this doesn't include the work done by covert online officers, who, according to the latest NPCC figures available, were responsible for 1,362 arrests between April 2021 and March 2022.

While an admirable effort, the DCC warned that these interventions often come at a time "where an offence has taken place".

"Therefore, the harm that is caused is significant, and we know that harm can have a lifetime effect," he added.

These figures also have to be considered relative to the size of the threat, which is laid bare by the NCA's estimation that there are likely to be 550,000 to 850,000 people in the UK who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children. 

Many of these offences are committed through the use of online platforms - including those run by social media companies - which as it stands are only ethically bound to ensure the safety of their users.

The Online Safety Bill would change that, and not a minute too soon in the eyes of the DCC.

He said: “What we need to do is to prevent this material being on there in the first place.

"And the legislation doesn’t supplement the fact that there should be a moral duty on the companies who are earning billions of pounds from them, to protect children from the content that’s causing them so much harm.”

Essentially, this legislation would shore up that moral obligation by imposing a series of legal requirements.

The Online Safety Bill

If passed, this legislation would require social media platforms to:

- remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place

- prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content

- enforce age limits and age-checking measures

- assess how their platforms could allow abusers to create anonymous profiles

- take steps to ban repeat offenders, preventing them from creating new accounts and limiting what new or suspicious accounts can do

Child sexual abuse, extreme sexual violence and sexual exploitation are among the types of illegal content which will require removal, while material promoting self-harm is to be made illegal for the first time.

The requirements aren't just applicable to social media companies; a government policy paper has confirmed that new rules will be introduced for search engines, and for platforms which host user-generated content (those which allow users to post their own content online or interact with each other).

As part of this, there will be a legal requirement for companies to report child sexual abuse content on their platforms to the NCA. This will replace the UK’s existing voluntary reporting regime.

NPCC lead for Child Protection, Merseyside Police DCC Ian Critchley

DCC Ian Critchley 


In February 2020, the government announced its intention to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online safety in the UK. 

For DCC Critchley, having Ofcom as a regulatory body represents an "opportunity for non-compliance to be dealt with in a hugely significant way". 

Having been in conversation as this bill progresses through parliament, he says Ofcom's leadership has given policing "real confidence" when it comes to regulation.

Under new powers included in the legislation, it will be able to fine non-complying companies up to £18 million or 10% of their annual global turnover - whichever is greater. 

This is what the DCC wants to see: “I think the most important bit is where we see immediate breaches happening, once the legislation is enacted, that we see some really impactful regulation, some really impactful fines, and publicity that goes with that.”

In order to do that, it must be properly resourced.

A document titled 'Ofcom's roadmap to regulation', published last July, confirmed that the government has been providing funding to help the body strengthen and prepare since December 2020.

While timelines have shifted since the time of publication, there are plans to create an Online Safety Policy team and a Trust & Safety Technology function, alongside growing existing Enforcement, Legal, Research & Insight and Data teams.

Ofcom has also started to build a hub in Manchester, where it aims to create 150 new jobs out of an estimated 300-350 roles required. 

The right to privacy

Under a new clause added to the bill over the summer, companies in scope which provide end-to-end encrypted messaging will be mandated to put systems in place which automatically scan for child sex abuse material so it can be reported.

This has prompted concerns over privacy, which the DCC stresses can never "override" a child's right to be protected.

Arguing that using this type of messaging will allow “offenders to go unchecked”, he said: "There is a concern that we have around the developing use of end-to-end encryption, there is a continued debate being had around the right to privacy.

"I’m quite clear on this, I acknowledge and accept privacy, particularly for young people. But anyone’s right to privacy is lost when they’re involved in the abuse of children.”

The bigger picture

Last October, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published a report which declared child sexual abuse a "national epidemic".

The inquiry reached this conclusion after holding 325 days of public hearings, processing over two million pages of evidence, and hearing from 725 witnesses.

For DCC Critchley, there is no better illustration of why this legislation is essential.

He said: “We look at the IICSA report, and the seven-year public inquiry, and we hear the voices of 6,500 victims within that, of children – now adult – survivors, of the impact of abuse.

“We need to use this as a real, and I use these words carefully, once in a lifetime moment in relation to the digital revolution, to make the online world and therefore what’s happening in young people’s lives much safer."

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