The online technology sector has “failed to do all it can to prevent access to images of child sexual abuse,” according to an official report into the scale of the problem.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse highlights an “explosion in child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet,” with up to 450 arrests in the UK each month, for offences related to online abuse and exploitation.
Despite technological advances to detect and prevent online child sexual abuse, the report said that “law enforcement is struggling to keep up.”
The report shines a light on the scale of child sexual abuse online, finding that the number of indecent images of children in circulation worldwide is in the many millions, with “some images reaching unprecedented levels of depravity.”
The Inquiry’s findings follow detailed testimony from victims, law enforcement officials, internet and social media companies, along with experts in online grooming and abuse.
It heard evidence that the UK is the third greatest consumer in the world of the live streaming of abuse.
But the inquiry found that: “Industry responses appeared reactive rather than proactive and that action seemed driven by a desire to avoid reputational damage, rather than to prioritise protection of children.”
Internet companies, it is claimed, also “failed to demonstrate that they were fully aware of the scale of underage social media use”.
It describes how online age verification processes can easily be subverted by children under 13, an age group at significant risk of being groomed, according to the report.
The inquiry’s Chair Professor Alexis Jay said the lack of a comprehensive plan from industry and government to combat this problem should be urgently addressed.
“The serious threat of child sexual abuse facilitated by the internet is an urgent problem which cannot be overstated.” Professor Jay said.
“Despite industry advances in technology to detect and combat online facilitated abuse, the risk of immeasurable harm to children and their families shows no sign of diminishing.
“The panel and I hope this report and its recommendations lead internet companies, law enforcement and government to implement vital measures to prioritise the protection of children and prevent abuse facilitated online.”
The report also found evidence that it was still possible to access child sexual abuse imagery from common search engines in only “three clicks”.
During 14 days of public hearings in January 2018 and May 2019, the Inquiry heard distressing accounts from those directly affected by online child sexual abuse.
The report describes the harm done to children and their families through online abuse as “incalculable”.