The collective response to protecting children from online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) needs closer coordination to maximise impact and safeguard children.
CSEA is a deeply emotive and troubling issue. As long as the most vulnerable in our society continue to suffer at the hands of paedophiles, the perception will persist that the response is too soft or too slow.
All of which is understandable given the distressing nature of this crime and the whole-life impact on victims. And yet in recent years we’re witnessing the worrying emergence of a much more insidious version of the threat. Online CSEA is changing the scope and scale of offending – drawing in wider global networks of both individual groomers and conspiratorial dark web networks that offer large-scale ‘membership-based’ access to the worst forms of abuse material.
Facing today’s challenge
While the relentless focus on preventing contact abuse and pursuing offenders remains key, today’s challenge is the exponential increase in online CSEA, spurred on by ubiquitous global high-speed broadband access, web-cam enabled smartphones and increasingly sophisticated offender communities.
At the same time, there are tensions between different international legal and policy frameworks, ethical and cultural considerations and the complexity of having multiple agencies involved across the response landscape.
Addressing this complexity is the greatest challenge for everyone involved in tackling online CSEA. That’s why – following our previous work with the WePROTECT Global Alliance – we spoke to organisations across government, law enforcement, the third sector and industry to identify a path towards better protecting children.
Rethinking the collective response
Our research, A tangled web: rethinking the approach to online CSEA, identified three distinct threat areas that each require a tailored response – where the physical world meets the online world, the surface web and the dark web. While the UK has been ranked first internationally for its response to sexual violence against children and the UK’s integrated law enforcement response is widely recognised as an international exemplar, many stakeholders are calling for a better coordinated multi-agency response to the end-to-end theat.
This is where we see an opportunity to create an Online Harms Safety Centre (OHSC), a single ‘front door’ to orchestrate the collective skills and capacity of organisations across the response landscape. It would be created by government and then sit independently, replicating the models used by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).
While the online CSEA landscape and response is emotive and complex, we believe we have identified a way forward – and an opportunity to better protect children from sinister online harms.
It’s time for a completely new approach to the way we educate children about online child sexual exploitation and abuse.