Joanna Shields: The UK is leading the world in online safety

Posted On: 
29th April 2016

The rapid increase in the amount of time children spend online means keeping them safe from harm is a moving target. We all have a responsibility to play our part. 

With so many new mobile messaging, gaming and social apps being released for kids to interact, explore and connect with each other, is it any wonder we see them spending more and more time online? And with so much social currency given to “likes” and “followers”, the pressure to appear relevant and popular has never been greater. It's not surprising then that social media platforms and apps are becoming their default method of communication. 

One thing is clear – the rapid increase in the amount of time children spend online means keeping them safe from harm is a moving target. Having worked in the tech industry for over 25 years, and now as minister for internet safety and security, I continue to be amazed by the breakneck speed at which new and exciting developments are being made and new platforms and apps inspire and consume more and more of our children’s attention.

Dido Harding: We must confront the dark side of the internet

Government launches consultation over internet porn age

Yvette Cooper launches 'Reclaim the Internet' campaign to stop online sexism

But with these tremendous advances and opportunities, there are consequences. Technology offers endless benefits and possibilities, especially to children. But while it empowers the curious, the creative, and the compassionate it also empowers the criminal, the corrupt, and the coercive.

Criminals with a sexual interest in children are quick to exploit the internet by posing as children themselves and targeting young people online. And of course, perpetrators are able to target potential victims from anywhere around the world.

That is why in 2014, the government founded WePROTECT, a global and multi-stakeholder response to combating online child abuse and exploitation. Over 60 governments, technology companies and civil society organisations have agreed to identify and protect victims, and remove indecent online images of children.

We are already seeing results. Following the first WePROTECT summit, the Internet Watch Foundation has shared 19,000 hashes or digital identifiers of child abuse images with five of the largest technology companies in the world, including Google and Facebook, to enable them to remove this vile material from their platforms and services.

Since the start of the initiative, Google has seen an eight-fold reduction in attempts to search for such material; and earlier this month the IWF revealed they identified and removed 68,092 web pages containing illegal images in 2015 – a record number and a rise of 118% on 2014.

The UK government is committed to stamping out this heinous crime and are giving our law enforcement agencies the technology, powers and capabilities they need to take action against online offenders and safeguard victims.

All UK police forces and the National Crime Agency are now connected to the Child Abuse Image Database, which was launched by the government in 2014. The database has significantly reduced the time it takes to search a suspect’s devices, and has contributed to the identification of over 410 victims in the first 10 months of 2015/2016 – twice as many as in any previous year.

Last year, we also launched a joint operations cell between the National Crime Agency and GCHQ, to tackle the most technologically advanced serious and organised criminals, including online CSE offenders.

Online child sexual exploitation knows no boundaries. It is imperative we remain one step ahead of the perpetrators to protect children, no matter where they live.

But keeping kids safe online is not just about protecting them from dangerous criminals. It’s important we understand that the internet is a ‘one size fits all’ medium – it’s the same internet for everyone, whatever age, and that means that sometimes we need to take care to ensure the needs of younger users are protected.

Today, many kids are more prolific and experienced in using the internet than their parents, and those parents would be shocked to learn just how easy it is to access hard core pornography online.

Offline, there are clear expectations that children will be protected, and our laws prevent pornographic videos in hard copy being sold to under 18s. They also ensure that we verify age before allowing young people to watch a movie in the cinema. But when it comes to the online world, we fail to realise that children can see free-to-access sites online, which display explicit, high definition videos and animated GIFs that are openly running on landing pages. Online “Adults Only” content should mean what it says. It should not be freely accessible to children.

When young people access this material, it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development. Experts are concerned that its prevalence is changing the way this generation understands healthy relationships, sex and consent.

And young people themselves are showing concern about the effects of easy access to pornography. Research by the IPPR in 2014 found that seven out of 10 of young people surveyed felt that ‘pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex’ and that ‘pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships’. Government research shows that 13% of children aged 6-14 visited a pornographic site in May 2015.

In the same way that we have protections for pornographic content offline – placing magazines on high shelves and banning the sale of hardcore pornography to children – we also need to consider how the same protections can be applied online.

Just as we do in the offline world, we want to ensure that online content that is only suitable for adults is not freely accessible to children. We want to put responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the companies who profit from the provision of online porn, by establishing a legal requirement for commercial providers of pornography to have in place age verification controls to prevent young people under 18 in the UK accessing pornographic content online. This would be underpinned by new powers to impose fines on those sites that do not comply with age verification.

Of course, we recognise that age verification is just one part of a wider suite of measures needed to address child protection concerns in this digital age.

The speed of change, and the development of new technologies, will continue apace. We know instinctively and through experience that additional safeguards are required to protect children as they explore and discover their own pathways through life, and exploring life online should be no exception.

I am thankful that the government’s commitment to improving the online safety of children is shared by many peers. Baroness Howe, in particular, has campaigned to improve the protection of children online, and the government has acted on many of her proposals.

I am impressed by the commitment of Baroness Benjamin, a true defender of children’s right to safely enjoy all the internet has to offer. Baroness Thornton and many others have also made significant contributions; and I must highlight the vision of Baroness Kidron, whose passion to look out for the rights of young people in the digital world demonstrates how tech companies, civil society and government can make the internet better for all.

The UK is a world leader in online safety. Time and again it has been at the forefront of tackling new online challenges. I want that to continue. Working with technology companies, children’s charities, teachers and parents, we will continue to take action against cyber bullying, sexualised content, self-harm, suicide sites, extremism content, and child sexual abuse online. Further progress in this area will depend upon maintaining a series of conversations – between parents and their children, government, industry, charities, academics and other experts in the field.

We all have a responsibility to play our part. While we stand together to celebrate the internet, we must commit to doing what we can to enable safer, more enjoyable online experiences for children and young people.    

Baroness Shields is minister for internet safety and security and a Conservative peer