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Online child sexual abuse images: doing more to tackle supply and demand

This report sets out what child sexual abuse images are, why they are a problem, it summarises on-going activity to tackle child sexual abuse images and also what more needs to happen to further tackle child sexual abuse images. In our assessment we identified a number of different lenses through which we need to look in order to understand the scale of the challenge. By doing this, we have drawn together, in a new way, the available evidence on the extent of the challenge. If we use the international research and apply it here, to arrive at a UK estimate, the possible scale of this challenge in the UK is sobering. Crucially, we believe there is sufficient evidence to point clearly to the need for further action now, as we have detailed in chapters four and five of this report.

There is already fruitful collaboration between industry, government, law enforcement and the third sector which we have summarised in chapter three of this report. Encouragingly, the right agencies and organisations are working together towards a common goal. Work is happening at the national and international level. Global initiatives such as the WeProtect Global Alliance are extremely important as this challenge transcends our national borders and it is imperative that the UK Government continues to play an integral role in global initiatives.

We need to continue to work together if the UK is to remain one of the toughest countries in the world in which to view, share or produce child sexual abuse images. We have identified a number of areas where progress can be made now. As a charity that has the protection of children at its core, the NSPCC will be working towards making a child’s “right to remove” a reality. Clear routes that enable sexualised images that have been generated by children and young people themselves to be removed permanently and completely must be made a reality. This process must be clear and accessible to children and young people. This is not something that the NSPCC can do alone. Partnership working will be instrumental in making this happen.

The research presented in this report is international and limited in scale, as there is no UK-based population level research in this space. On-going work by the National Crime Agency must be supported by the sharing of data and information by agencies, including industry, so that we use existing information to create a better and more accurate understanding of how we do more to tackle the problem, across both supply and demand.

In writing this report, we have pulled together many different available data sources. While there are a large number of players working towards the same goal, it has not always been straightforward to source relevant data relating to what measures work and what measures work less well. For example Google and Microsoft both took further steps to block web searches for child sexual abuse by removing this content from search indices in November 2013. It has not been possible to fully gauge what kind of impact these actions have had. Google has not been able to share up-to-date data; the latest data dates to January 2015. Microsoft has not been able to share any data to show the effect the measures taken in November 2013 have had. If we are going to work towards the goal of ending the viewing and sharing of child sexual abuse images, sharing information about what measures work, what measures are less effective cannot be optional. Without transparency about what our activities and initiatives achieve progress cannot be made as quickly as it needs to be.

Further research is required to understand how we can make our online environment less likely to facilitate the viewing and sharing of child sexual abuse images. We need a deeper, actionable understanding of what can prevent offending behaviour – this includes insights relating to the individual and insights relating to the online environment. The NSPCC is making a contribution by funding and commissioning research into what stops possible offenders from viewing images. But this alone is not enough and others must join efforts to contribute to the evidence base, to reduce both supply and demand.

Our law enforcement agencies work hard to bring perpetrators to justice every day and we must continue to support their crucial work. Yet it is clear, from the scale of the problem, that we cannot “arrest our way out” of this challenge. We also need to work with offenders and potential offenders with the aim of changing behaviours. Organisations like Stop It Now! provide an invaluable, yet underresourced service.

In the course of this work we have uncovered some areas that cause us concern. There is evidence that suggests that there are UK viewers of “teen” pornography. The evidence suggests that there is a journey from viewing pornography with young looking models to move onto illegal child sexual abuse images. Overall, this is a cause for concern and needs to be addressed. Specifically the imbalance between how we as a society consider child sexual abuse material in the online world versus the offline world needs to be rectified.

But we also think in the long term we need a different approach – one that places emphasis on a minimum set of standards that industry must comply with to keep children safe online. We question whether it is sufficient for an issue as serious as this to be dealt with through a voluntary system of self-regulation. As a society we have a choice whether we fuel the demand for child sexual abuse images or whether we seek to curtail it. Our choices, as a society, on what we consider to be acceptable can help to tackle this challenge. Ultimately, it is a focus on prevention that will make the long-term difference, and we must all must work together to make that happen.