The web’s darkest depths

Susie Hargreaves OBE sheds light on the appalling extent of Child Sexual Exploitation online and argues for a global consensus on fighting its spread.

There are many crimes perpetrated on the Internet including fraud, hacking, and copyright infringement, but I believe the crime of Child Sexual Exploitation is unique amongst these as it targets the most vulnerable in society and by doing so, robs them of their childhood.

At the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), our goal is to eliminate online child sexual abuse imagery from the Internet. Every five minutes we assess a webpage and every nine minutes that webpage shows a child being sexually abused.

Child sexual abuse material is any material that visually depicts a child engaged in real or sexually explicit content or any depiction of a child’s sexual organs for primarily sexual purposes. The majority of people will, quite rightly, never see this material so find it hard to comprehend what it actually is. In 2016, the IWF removed 57,000 individual URLs (webpages) of child sexual abuse material from the Internet. Each page can contain from one to thousands of images and videos of children being sexually abused. Of these, we assessed 53 per cent of the children as 10 and under, with two per cent (that’s 1,150 URLs) being children aged under two. Of the 57,000 pages, nearly half (47 per cent) were “Category A”, which is the worst level of abuse and includes rape and sexual torture.

Horrifically, our last three years’ data show that we removed over 4,400 URLs of new-born babies up to toddlers and 90 per cent of these were Category A and B – the worst types of abuse.

Tackling child sexual abuse material is the IWF’s job and is part of a wider effort to fight “Online Child Sexual Exploitation” (CSE). The NSPCC define CSE as “a type of sexual abuse. Children in exploitative situations and relationships receive something such as gifts, money or affection as a result of performing sexual activities or others performing sexual activities on them”. CSE will not only include child sexual abuse material but also includes other crimes including grooming, live streaming, child prostitution and trafficking.

CSE is not a new crime and was not invented by the Internet. What the Internet has provided is the means to gain easy global access to children to exploit directly, and share images of that exploitation. In the 1990s, the UK Home Office was aware of 7,000 CSA images, whereas today this figure is in the millions.

The Internet has also created a place for offenders to meet online to share hints and tips about how and where to access child sexual abuse material while avoiding detection. It’s also brought them together as a community, normalising their behaviour.

Online CSE is crime that does not respect geographical borders and can only be eradicated with an effective global response. It is further complicated by the fast paced change of technology which means there are no easy solutions and new daily challenges. There is a common misconception that technology companies hold a ‘magic bullet’ solution which they could deploy to rid the Internet of this abhorrent crime. The reality is a constant programme of developing new technology to fight the crime.

Conversely, and much more positively, there is also an ever-increasing band of major stakeholders from across the globe who are working together to tackle the problem.

Universal condemnation works in a number of ways, not just by addressing people’s behaviour but also by implementing appropriate policy and legislation. One of the issues that makes online CSE unique is that it is one the few global problems where you can get all the key players in a room to work together in genuine partnership as, for the clear majority of world citizens, this is a heinous crime which no one wants to be associated with.

The UN convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) is the most rapidly and widely recognised treaty in history and ratified by all countries in the world except for the US, which has signed but not ratified it, and Somalia. The convention covers all persons up to the age of 18 and gives the fundamental right to expect protection from abuse. In 2000, two optional protocols were added, the second calls on states to prohibit child prostitution, child pornography and the sale of children into slavery. These have now been ratified by more than 120 states.

In addition, the UN has created a number of Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030 and 16.2 commits to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children”.

In 2014, the ‘WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation’ was launched with a vision “to identify and safeguard more victims, apprehend more perpetrators, and end online child sexual exploitation”. To date, WePROTECT has a growing membership of 70 countries, 20 of the biggest names in the global technology industry and 17 leading CSOs.

For the majority of technology companies this is also a ‘no brainer’. In the main it’s legitimate services provided by these companies which are abused, but the companies also accept they have a responsibility to do whatever they can to keep their networks free of CSE. They do this because, not only is it bad for business to have your brand associated with this crime, but the majority of Internet companies want to be seen to be doing the right thing. That said, there are still a considerable number of companies, particularly operating in developing global markets, who hide behind the ‘mere conduit’ defence and have not stepped up to join the others in contributing to the cause.

Let’s return to the main reason this is a unique problem – the impact on the victims. In my job, I often meet survivors of CSE. I met Tara (not her real name) at a conference in the USA. She had been repeatedly abused as a child until her rescue when she was 12. US law enforcement confirmed that they knew of over 70,000 occasions when images of her had been shared. In the US, survivors can also ask to be notified when their ‘files’ (or images) are found as part of a police investigation. Tara has received over 7,500 of these notifications to date. She told me she was in a supermarket one day and a male stranger approached her and told her he’d seen her pictures.

I also met some sisters who had been abused from birth and were rescued some years ago. One of them told me she receives between two to three notifications from law enforcement each week. Now, recognising the envelopes, she just throws them in a pile. She also told me that as well as spending her life out in public worrying that anyone she encounters might have seen pictures of her, she is terrified all the time that anyone could approach her and physically hurt her.

This crime is unique because it’s not a victimless crime and it preys on the most vulnerable – in every single image or video, there is a real child, who has really been abused, and that’s a level of hurt that never goes away.