The growing intention to legislate against online child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) is not enough to stem the rising threat, according to a new report from PA Consulting, the global innovation and transformation consultancy.
Despite their diverse outlooks and a clamour for action to better protect our children online, PA’s report found that government bodies, law enforcement, industry and the third sector all agree there’s an opportunity to re-think how the key players collaborate.
Chris Elmore MP, Chair of the Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing All-Party Parliamentary Group welcomed the report’s recommendations and said: “I’m pleased public awareness of this threat is growing, but it’s clear that this is a demon that is very hard to contain,” and that he “hoped the government increases its efforts to protect vulnerable internet users.”
PA’s report, A tangled web: rethinking the approach to online CSEA, is based on interviews with senior officials and experts from international organisations including the Home Office, Facebook, Twitter, the Internet Watch Foundation, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the National Crime Agency.
How to enhance the collective response
PA proposes a single front door for coordination, in the form of an Online Harms Safety Centre (OHSC). The OHSC would harness the collective firepower of organisations across the online harms landscape including preventing extremism, intolerance, self-harm and suicide.
The OHSC would be set up by government but then run independently. It would mirror the model used by the National Cyber Security Centre, bringing government and technology companies together to protect our technology infrastructure. It would be quick to establish, adaptive to change, and run on a lean staffing model including seconded experts from across the threat landscape.
The OHSC proposed by PA Consulting would focus on three areas.
Firstly, a focus on educating children to better prepare them for online interactions by using preventative real-time technology. As part of this, social media companies should adopt the use of in-app technology to offer children information that will help a whole generation build their digital resilience
Secondly, there is a need to regulate the surface web, where paedophiles share images, stream live child abuse and pose as young people to groom potential victims.
Thirdly, there should be a focus on disrupting the dark web, where conspiratorial networks and paedophiles share ‘tradecraft’, CSEA imagery, and hints and tips on evading detection.
Responding to the report, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for DCMS in the Commons, Christine Jardine MP said: “As the report makes clear there is far too much illegal activity on social media, from inciting violence to grooming children for abuse. To tackle this, existing laws must be properly enforced - and that requires more officers, resources and training for police and prosecutors.”
Nick Newman, defence, security and public safety expert at PA Consulting and author of the report, says: “We need to urgently address the growing threats to our children online. The threat is evolving fast and a unified, consistent and cost-effective approach is especially challenging given the collective response draws on a diverse and highly complex stakeholder landscape.
“We see the potential to create a single point of coordination that oversees the end-to-end online CSEA response across three distinct threat areas: where the physical world meets the online world; the surface web; and the dark web. Such a model would create a ‘single point of truth’ that draws upon the expertise of those across the landscape, better protecting children from online harms and building towards a positive human future.”