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Pandemic creates ‘perfect storm’ for online child abuse

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The coronavirus pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for online child abuse with cases rising rapidly since March, the NSPCC has said.

The child protection charity has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to bring forward the Government’s Online Harms legislation, which is designed to combat dangerous activity online and introduce sanctions for rogue tech firms that are not doing enough to tackle the issue.

Freedom of Information responses from 38 police forces in England and Wales show that 1,220 offences of “Sexual Communication with a Child” were recorded in the first three months of lockdown.

Facebook-owned apps (Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp) were used in 51 per cent of instances where the means of communication was recorded. Snapchat was used in 20 per cent of instances for which data was available.

The NSPCC also found that offences have increased annually in the three years prior to lockdown.

In total there were 12,925 offences recorded by police in England and Wales from April 2017 to March 2020, with experts saying poorly designed social media sites are putting children at risk.

The figures reveal how Instagram is increasingly being exploited by offenders. It was used in 37 per cent of cases where the platform was recorded, compared with 29 per cent over the previous three years.

The NSPCC warned the pandemic had created “a perfect storm for online offenders” and believe these figures could mark the start of a surge in online grooming crimes. With ongoing coronavirus restrictions across the UK, the charity said the risk of online abuse will continue to spike, and many more offences may come to light when children report them at school. 

The NSPCC has urged Johnson to ensure companies and named managers can be held criminally responsible for failing to protect children from avoidable harm and abuse. It also wants the upcoming Online Harms Bill to compel firms to consider child protections when they design their sites to prevent harm rather than react once the damage is done.

But it is warning tough deterrents will be needed to make some of the world’s biggest companies stand up and listen, and is concerned the Government may not go far enough.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Families have long paid the price for big tech’s failure to protect children from abuse, but the Prime Minister has the chance to turn the tide and put responsibility on firms to clean up the mess they created.

“As the pandemic intensifies the threat children face online, bold and ambitious action is needed in the form of a world-leading Online Harms Bill.”

“This means legislation that is tough on online crimes against children and regulation that holds tech companies and bosses financially and criminally responsible if they continue to turn a blind eye to entirely avoidable harm.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, chief constable Simon Bailey, added: “In an increasingly digitally connected world, perpetrators of child abuse are conducting more and more of their activities online.  Offenders use the internet to access and share child abuse images, and to make contact with and groom children directly.”

“Although online regulation is difficult, it is clear that it is the only way to ensure tech and social media companies will take their responsibilities seriously. The Online Harms White Paper, published in February 2020, proposes a new regulatory framework and duty of care which have the potential to be of real use in the fight against child exploitation.”

In June, a number of tech firms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, announced a new joint venture designed to better tackle child sexual abuse content online.

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