The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the proliferation of online child sexual abuse and the risk posed to children and young people as they engage with others across social media platforms. I have previously written about the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which has done fantastic work, reporting upon the increase in reports of child abuse images.
The concern about online abuse has been exacerbated by the announcement of Facebook’s intention to use end to end encryption of messages by default on its platforms, which include Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp This has caused the NSPCC to argue for specific offences against the large technology companies in the event that they fail to protect children from harm. The Government has listened. In the Queen’s Speech an Online Safety Bill was announced which may bring about sweeping changes to the way tech companies police their own businesses.
Under the proposed legislation, the technology companies will have a new legal duty of care towards their users. If the technologies breach that duty of care not only may they be subjected to criminal proceedings but it may be possible to pursue financial compensation against the social media firms and technology companies for the harm caused to individuals, children particularly, as a consequence of their failures.
Online child abuse statistics
The statistics are shocking. Shocking because of the number of reports made of online videos and images of child sexual abuse, but also of the potential harm caused to those children who are subjected to these images.
- Figures published in May 2020 revealed that in the last three years there have been 10,019 offences of sexual communication with a child;
- In the 11 weeks from 23 March 2020, the IWF logged 44,809 reports of child abuse images
- In 2020 IWF processed 299,600 reports, including those made by the public. This is an increase of 15% on the previous year
- Of these 299,600 reports, 153,350 contain images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. This is an increase of 16% on the previous year.
- Every report of online child sexual abuse contains between one, and thousands of child sexual abuse images and videos
- 68,000 reports were tagged as including “self generated” child sexual abuse content. This is a 77% increase in 2019.
Online Safety Bill
The Government has listened to campaigners, including the NSPCC. In the Queen’s speech, this month, the Government has announced an Online Safety Bill to safeguard children online by tackling what they describe as “some of the worst abuses on social media”.
The Bill contains a specific provision that social media sites, websites, apps and other services hosting user generated content or allowing people to talk to others online, must remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content, including child sexual abuse and suicide content. The NSPCC, who have been campaigning for tougher regulation will hopefully be pleased with these new proposals, which include Ofcom being given the power to fine technology companies up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover. There will also be a power to block access to websites.
The NSPCC have been calling for a new criminal offence against social media technology companies, so that they could be convicted for gross breach of their duty of care if adequate procedures to protect children have not been taken. The response from the Government, in the Online Safety Bill, is provision made for a new criminal offence against senior managers, although this is a deferred power. This power could be introduced later if the technology companies do not protect children.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said:
“Today the UK shows global leadership with our groundbreaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.
We will protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said:
“This new legislation will force tech companies to report online child abuse on their platforms, giving our law enforcement agencies the evidence they need to bring these offenders to justice.
Ruthless criminals who defraud millions of people and sick individuals who exploit the most vulnerable in our society cannot be allowed to operate unimpeded, and we are unapologetic in going after them.
It’s time for tech companies to be held to account and to protect the British people from harm. If they fail to do so, they will face penalties.”
Online Duty of Care
Social media firms and technology companies will have a legal duty to protect users, both adults and children, from online activity. The guidance is, what is unacceptable off-line will also be unacceptable online.
The technology companies will be required to undertake risk assessments of their sites which may pose risks to the youngest and most vulnerable people, to protect children from inappropriate content and harmful activity.
If the Bill becomes law the technology companies will be required to take robust action to “tackle illegal abuse, including swift and effective action against hate crimes, harassment and threats directed at individuals and keep their promises to users about their standards”
Compensation for Harm Caused by Online Child Abuse
The legislation will hopefully bring about profound change in the way that technology companies police their own websites. Although the tech firms have repeatedly stated that they spend substantial sums on removing inappropriate content from their sites, this legislation will require them to take further steps. If they fail to do so, they could face substantial fines, and individuals could be prosecuted. For those who are psychologically affected by online abuse may have a claim for financial compensation against the likes of Facebook, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Tik Tok, WeChat, Snapchat, You Tube and other platforms that fail to take sufficient steps.
Contact specialist child sexual abuse lawyers today
Contact our no win, no fee child-abuse solicitors now, for advice on how to make a claim for the harm caused by abuse, including online child sexual exploitation, or to simply consider what options and possibilities are available, without any obligation. Call us today on 0333 123 9099, email email@example.com or fill in our online form.