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Online Safety Bill a game-changer in fight against CSA 'pandemic'

Chair of the PIER Institute and former NPCC lead for child protection, Simon Bailey, believes there will be an inquiry into the escalation of this problem in '15 or 20 years' time'.

The escalating threat of child sexual abuse (CSA) is a "public health issue" of which the law enforcement response is just one element, according to former NPCC child protection lead Simon Bailey.

Now Chair of the Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER), Mr Bailey spent eight years as child protection lead while chief constable of Norfolk Police.

Part of Anglia Ruskin University, PIER has worked with law enforcement and key stakeholders over the last five years to improve the policing and public protection response to this threat.

Mr Bailey says that the Online Safety Bill soon to become law will be a game changer. 

“Michelle Donelan, the tech secretary [of state], referred to it as a ‘game-changing’ piece of legislation, and it absolutely is a game-changing piece of legislation. 

"I think it’s fair to say that NGOs, governments, charities, academia, press groups have all tried to move the needle on what I would describe as the social and moral responsibility of the big tech platforms. 

"We have done everything to try and encourage them to be more responsible, and they haven’t."

This legislation will require these platforms to remove illegal content quickly/prevent it from appearing in the first place, and to stop children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content.

Alongside this, they will have to assess how their platforms could allow abusers to create anonymous profiles and take steps to ban repeat offenders.

Ultimately it's meant to “hold the big companies to account for what they’re hosting and what they’re permitting”, something Mr Bailey says they have so far deprioritised.

"My personal view is that they have put profit before protecting children, and they’ve put profit before putting in place the trust and safety measures that should’ve been there at the outset in the development of their products. And as a result of that, tens of millions of children have been abused, and continue to be abused."

The figures on what Mr Bailey describes as a "pandemic" are stark.

According to the NCA’s 2023 Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime published in July, up to 830,000 adults pose some degree of sexual risk to children – equivalent to 1.6% of the UK adult population.

That same month the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) revealed that, of the 375,230 reports of suspected online child sexual abuse analysed throughout 2022, 255,588 reports contained CSA imagery. 

This is just a snapshot of the threat that Mr Bailey says is growing "at an alarming rate".

Given this, Meta's recent announcement that it plans to imminently roll out end-to-end encryption on Instagram and Facebook Messenger is of grave concern.

A Home Office campaign, launched last week, urged Meta to reconsider and laid bare the potential ramifications. 

Currently, 800 predators a month are arrested by UK law enforcement agencies and up to 1,200 children are safeguarded from child sexual abuse following information provided by social media companies.

The campaign states that if Meta proceeds with their plans, they will no longer be able to detect child abuse as they currently do. According to the NCA, an estimated 92% of Facebook Messenger and 85% of Instagram Direct referrals could be lost.

So why would Meta take this step? "I think they think it gives them plausible deniability…”

But Mr Bailey doesn't believe the "we can't see" argument will wash with the regulator Ofcom.

“But you only have to look at the sheer number of referrals that Meta made to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children last year, and continue to make this year – that is going to drop off the edge of a cliff.

"...I believe, that the regulators will now be saying to them…’well hold on a minute, you were referring millions and millions…now all of a sudden that’s stopped."

According to the Policing Minister’s address to PIER’s conference earlier this year, Facebook and Instagram currently account for more than 80% of global referrals of suspected child abuse to this centre.

So if and when these numbers dramatically drop, the regulator will ask questions. "They will turn round and say, ‘you were making tens of millions of referrals before you put in place end to end encryption'."

Notwithstanding the importance of this legislation, Mr Bailey stresses throughout that the response to this threat has to be multi-faceted.

“It cannot just be around tech – it has to be around the education, the awareness, dealing with people who are predisposed to have a sexual interest in children."

This is where PIER comes in. Among its ongoing work is the Protech Project, which looks at "how technology can be used to moderate offender’s behaviours".

Launched in March, the two-year project will research, design and create an app that can be installed on the devices of individuals at risk of accessing child sexual abuse material.

PIER is also currently analysing an IWF awareness campaign with the aim of helping to inform the most effective ways of communicating messages about online harms to children and families.

Moreover, research is underway into the impact of a project in Thames Valley designed to deliver support for the families of people suspected of online CSA.

Mr Bailey says all this work is geared toward addressing the wider problem. Asked what he hopes it will achieve, he said: "I would hope to achieve a global awareness amongst parents, teachers, carers, grandparents and young people about the risks of online harms…

"Not to discourage the use of the internet, because it’s an amazing tool, but for them to understand that there are people on there who will want to engage with them inappropriately."

Stressing that this threat cannot be viewed simply as a criminal issue - "we’ve tried in the UK, I tried to arrest our way out of that problem" - he believes questions are coming.

“In 15 or 20 years’ time…there’ll be an independent inquiry into how we let this happen.  And I will hopefully still be around, I'll hopefully give evidence and my testimony will be, 'I did my best'."

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