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BASW: Why pop up warnings are no panacea to indecent images online

BASW has cautioned that internet search engine plans for pop-up windows to appear when web users try to access indecent images of children must be accompanied by a wide range of other measures if children are to be better safeguarded from sexual exploitation.

Responding to media coverage following a deal between the UK Government and a number of leading search engines, BASW Professional Officer Nushra Mansuri called for a combination of prosecutions, marketing campaigns and for therapeutic services to be protected from cuts.

Ms Mansuri said: "There is no single solution to this problem. Instead, we need a sustained strategy to prosecute offenders, improve the training of professionals – including social workers – provide helpful tips for parents and carers about how to be vigilant, widely disseminated age-appropriate publicity for children and young people, as well as readily available therapeutic services for those engaging in, or considering, such damaging and abusive behaviour.

"BASW is supportive of search engine companies taking a more responsible approach to the content they facilitate users in accessing. Any reasonable measure that can help users to recognise that such images are a violation of the rights of the children involved is an important to step in reducing incidences of abuse. However, any view that such measures offer a panacea would certainly be misplaced – little more than a first aid kit to treat a whole A&E department."

The deal between culture minister Maria Miller and all major search engines was agreed at the end of June. It means that anyone trying to access a website suspected of containing illegal child abuse images will be greeted with the warning: ‘Access has been denied by your internet access provider because this page may contain indecent images of children as identified by the Internet Watch Foundation.’
BASW expressed concern, however, that the use of 'splash pages' is only helpful at the margins of the problem, since warnings will not pop up for all those sites that have not yet been reported to the authorities.

Instead, Ms Mansuri said ministers need to be prepared to be bold and to consider a broad strategy. She said: "In aiming to prevent people viewing indecent images, and reduce the abuse on which their existence is based, we need a wide-ranging and concerted approach, including high profile efforts to deter, disrupt and prosecute those who persist in viewing, making and selling indecent images. 

"A further part of reducing and minimising the risks of such harmful behaviour is ensuring those engaging in such activity, or thinking of doing so, can access help at the earliest opportunity. Helplines for anyone trying to access indecent images are one option, awakening those who wrongly believe these to be victimless crimes about the tragic realities of what they are doing. Ministers might also consider the merits of a nationwide advertising campaign, emphasising to abusers the risks they are taking and the victims they are indirectly creating.

"Finally, the availability of sufficient therapeutic services for children who have already been abused is a further serious issue that must be considered. Children who go without help remain far more vulnerable to further exploitation and too many vital services are being cut, or threatened with being scaled back."