Brexit could diminish UK-EU fight against online child sex abuse, inquiry told

Brexit could diminish collaborative working between British and European partners around tackling online child sexual abuse and exploitation, an inquiry heard.

The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard it was crucial that the UK continued to shape future policies outside its borders.

Peter Alcock, representing the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), told the inquiry on Friday that Brexit could “diminish” collaborative working between partners in Britain and the EU.

He said: “The IWF currently receives 10% of its funding from the EU, approximately £400,000 per year. In addition the wider partnership of the UK Safer Internet Centre depends on such funding even more.

“Not only will there be the loss of the work financed by the potential funding shortfall, but also collaborative working with EU partners stands to diminish after Brexit.

“The IWF is the largest hotline in Europe and makes the largest global contribution to the INHOPE database and so it is crucial that the UK’s influence in helping shape future policy outside of the UK is not jeopardised.”

The IICSA is conducting its second investigation phase, into how the internet is used to facilitate child sexual abuse in England and Wales through acts such as grooming, sharing indecent images and live-streaming abuse.

Leading tech firms including Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft have given evidence on how they are fighting child sexual exploitation on their platforms.

During the closing statements to this investigative phase on Friday the inquiry was warned that end-to-end encryption was likely to “embolden paedophiles” and make their automated detection “near impossible”.

William Chapman, who represents three victims of online child sexual abuse, said that under self-regulation the big internet companies will only do as much as they are “shamed into doing”.

He added. “They are not going to self-regulate themselves out of business, there’s too much money to be made.

“They certainly will not do so if there is not a common set of rules for everyone. Self-regulation means those companies set the rules.”

Mr Chapman said that while online child sexual abuse was driven by a sexual interest in children, sadism and power over the vulnerable, a more fundamental reason was opportunity.

He said that the rapid expansion of social media to create huge networks provided “huge opportunities” for predatory paedophiles, and to tackle online sexual abuse the opportunity had to be removed.

He added: “Sex, sadism, power are nothing new, they are as old as the hills and will never go away.

“What’s new and growing is the opportunity to indulge these. The internet provides that opportunity.”

Mr Chapman called for bold action to regulate the big internet companies including companies having to check images and videos before they can be uploaded to their platforms as well as age and identity verification for people wishing to sign up to platforms and services.

He added: “Be bold because this is a horrifying problem that is likely to grow exponentially.

“Be bold because of the imbalance of power: on the one hand the immensely wealthy global organisations, on the other hand, children.

“Be bold because the interests of big tech are not well aligned with child protection.”

Mr Chapman also suggested there should be a new criminal offence of an adult posing as a child without reasonable excuse.

He added: “We are not saying people should not be free to play with their identity online but there is a limit, a 60-year-old man has no business playing Peter Pan in Neverland.”

Nick Griffin QC, representing the Home Office, told the inquiry that the Government had published its online harms white paper consultation and made it clear there had to be a “model of regulation”.

But Mr Griffin said the Home Office recognised there was much more to do to tackle the problem.

He added: “The most appalling and horrifying illegal content and activity remains prevalent on an unacceptable scale.

“The white paper is recognition that the industry has to respond quickly to the evolving threat.

“The Government has made clear that we need to move beyond a self-regulation model to a model of regulation.”

Counsel to the inquiry Jacqueline Carey said the final investigation report is expected to be published early next year.