The Prime Ministers personal involvement in an issue as important as child protection on the internet should be a good thing. Properly focused it could be a great thing, but the key is in the focus and that must be on what best protects our children. Having watched the PM on The Andrew Marr Show today I was struck by the fact that his position is more coherent and that he is now publically recognising the positive support of many in the internet industry and the need for a holistic approach including enhanced policing.
One of the problems with the recent debate has been the singular focus on blocking and the bombardment with rhetoric that fails to differentiate between two very different commodities; child sex abuse images and adult pornography. Choosing to access the first leads to the commission of a criminal offence, whilst accessing the other, unless extreme does not. So to compare or even worse mix the debate on the two issues is unhelpful.
Child sex abuse images should be blocked and ‘known’ images are. The 2012 Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) Annual Report states that, the IWF ‘..issued 35 notices to remove content hosted in the UK on 73 webpages. This relatively low number continues to show how the online industry is dedicated to making the UK a hostile environment to host such criminal content.’
Whilst it is hard to imagine how it might work without censoring public access, targeting certain search terms might be a useful tactic to divert or delay access to those sexually motivated to seek out such images, but it won’t stop them. We need to focus our attack on the root cause of this disease, child sex abusers, people, not technology. If people didn’t sexual abuse children, didn’t capture and share indecent images of them there would be no issue. So I suggest that those advising the PM stop drafting questionable letters attempting to manipulate ISP’s and start reading some of the information available to them from the agency created by government to combat online child abuse.
They might begin by considering what is not mentioned in the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Center strategic threat assessments – Google. That is because the assessments focus on key areas of concern. In 2010 they reported that, ‘Distribution of indecent images was the second most recorded activity reported to CEOP and the majority were believed to be passed via peer-to-peer (P2P) sites…’ In 2012 reporting on a new generation of P2P sharing they noted, ‘…users must first be invited into smaller groups…and …This means that it is not possible for those outside the group to see which files are available from a particular user. ‘ We know these offenders are not stupid and that they are moving in large numbers to the darkest recesses of the web, places you don’t get to by a simple click through from your standard search engine.
If part of this approach is focused on deterrence we should get the basics right, a deterrent must have teeth. Think of the drink driving campaign, advertising, educating drivers, the public and licensees was useful but the greatest deterrent in days when drunk drivers felt immune from capture and prosecution was arrests and visible consequence.
You will not deter the 50,000 people CEOP estimate to have been downloading and sharing images in 2012 with pop ups, especially in areas of the net they don’t use. You will only deter them when the likelihood of capture increases and that requires investment in Law Enforcement. CEOP’s funding has not risen in real terms since this government came to power, it still operates on circa £6.4 million and no matter how you spin it that cannot reflect the commitment the Home Secretary made in 2010 to invest in and build on its success. Standing still in this digital environment is falling behind and it must have been disheartening for many to hear police admit that they cannot cope with the volumes. 50,000 active offenders and only 192 arrests generated by CEOP intelligence and operations last year. The government must invest to save. In my opinion we are not even getting the first principals right, how many people are working today, Sunday 21st July, to identify, locate and rescue the real children trapped in these images? I would guess the answer is none or at best a handful.
So I hope we can use this renewed level of interest and the Prime Ministers commitment, to make a real difference. Lets see investment in policing, education and victim support and if we are going to push the Internet industry to do more lets ask them to help fund a global scholarship. By bringing together the best academics and psychologist in this field, credible practitioners and the finest data-crunching technology the world has to offer, we have a greater chance of building a better understanding about why these people are the way they are, why they do the things they do, and how we can stop them.
About the author: Jim Gamble is the Chief Executive at INEQE, Independent Chair at City of London and Hackney Safeguarding Children Board and founding CEO of CEOP. He was formally the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on Child Protection and Child Trafficking and the founder and initial Chair of the Virtual Global Task Force, an international collaboration to make children safer online.