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The UK must take the lead against online sexual exploitation of children

4 min read

When Joy (pseudonym) was 10 years old, a woman she knew and trusted invited her into her house. Once she was inside, Joy was surprised when the woman asked her to take off her clothes so that she could take pictures. While Joy was scared by this request, she felt she had no choice as she was already inside the woman’s house.

What Joy didn’t know was that the woman was also abusing dozens of other children in her neighbourhood, streaming the abuse for sex offenders in other countries who were willing to pay to watch online. 

Depressingly, Joy’s experience, which continued regularly over a period of years, is not unusual. Where once those offenders may have had to travel to the Philippines (the world’s hotspot for livestreamed exploitation) or elsewhere to abuse children, now all they need to do is search online using the same search engines or social media sites that we all use, before anonymously sending a payment to a trafficker.

The cost of doing this is shockingly low: the Australian Institute of Criminology has found it typically costs £27 per livestream, with live video of the rape of an eight-year-old sold for as little as £8.  These monsters can then direct live sexual abuse of a child from the comfort of their own home — safe in the knowledge that this crime is unlikely to ever be detected. 

We have to help the platforms themselves to change their cultures so that this behaviour is called out

The UK already has the third highest demand for livestreamed exploitation of any country in the world — and we know that globally, this crime is growing faster than the ability of law enforcement to tackle it – Covid-19 has not helped. Europol issued a warning that “livestreaming of child sexual abuse increased and became even more popular during the Covid-19 pandemic”. According to CyberTipline reports to the Philippine government, the distribution of child sexual abuse materials rose by 264 per cent during this period. The main reason that exploitation is flourishing is simply that it goes undetected, particularly when it is livestreamed. 

So why don’t the platforms that host these materials – albeit unwittingly - detect and report them? In short, because legally they are not required to.  Although some of us despair that only new laws can make them do the right thing, that’s what we need.

The UK now has an opportunity to lead the world through the Online Safety Bill, which would place a duty of care on tech platforms. It should require them to detect, report and remove these materials or face significant fines from OFCOM. These measures would be ground-breaking, acknowledging that video chat platforms, messaging apps and social media sites are accountable for the exploitation happening in plain sight on their sites.

Working with these platforms we can detect, disrupt and report exploitation, providing significant support to law enforcement. This could make a real difference to efforts on the ground to rescue children from exploitation, many of whom currently wait years to be found and brought to safety, according to a report from International Justice Mission. 

But to succeed, the Bill must be as strong as it can be. It must include measures to substantially reduce the amount of child sexual abuse materials available online.  It also needs to give the police more and better tools to be able to step in stop the abuse, and we need to use technology to help detection.

Crucially, we have to help the platforms themselves to change their cultures so that this behaviour is called out – it can never be acceptable for someone to try to view this material or allow easy access to it.

If the UK is truly to become the safest place in the world to be online, we must not tolerate the proliferation of exploitation — instead, we must use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that no child suffers the same experiences as Joy. We have a unique opportunity to lead the world on this issue, and it must not go to waste.


Karen Bradley is the Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

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