This article was originally published in The Telegraph, 25/4/2023: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2023/04/25/sajid-javid-tech-politi…
When I walked into the Home Office in 2018, I assumed that dealing with terrorism or violent crime would weigh most heavily on me. I was mistaken. It wasn’t until I visited the front lines of the fight against child sexual abuse that I realised the horrifying truth about its scale and severity.
Officers at the National Crime Agency (NCA) briefed me on the complex operations these twisted criminals used day in day out. During the conversation, an officer with 20 years’ experience in counter terrorism told me confronting these abusers was the toughest challenge of his career.
Despite the dedication of many, and increased awareness raised by brave survivors, the scale and severity of the problem has not improved. In fact, it is getting significantly worse.
This disturbing reality is confirmed by a report released today by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF); an independent charity dedicated to child protection online. In the last year, the IWF removed a record 255,000 webpages containing child sexual abuse imagery from the internet.
Concerningly, their analysts also found the amount of “Category A” material – the most extreme kinds of sexual imagery - has doubled since 2020. This included imagery of children as young as three years old and extends to horrific offences such as rape.
We already faced an epidemic of child abuse and exploitation. However, these sickening new trends show this virus is mutating and consequently, the depravity of these crimes are increasing. An entire industry dedicated to commercialising exploitation is growing in strength online – and we face a huge battle against the evasive criminals who profit from it.
Sadly, shocking reports such as this feel like an almost regular occurrence. The same applies for words of condemnation from politicians and tech company executives. It’s clear that politics and industry are falling short in the fight against this disease. We may win individual battles, but we are steadily losing the war.
None of this is helped by the recent politicisation of this issue, including Trumpian attack adverts against the Prime Minister and careless references to Jimmy Saville about the Leader of the Opposition. I worry this matter is increasingly becoming a political football, something that only serves to threaten much-needed political consensus.
To turn the tide, new policies are needed. The Government is not short of recommendations, including from the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). In the online world, tech companies have a moral duty to ensure they and law enforcement are not blind to child sexual abuse on their platforms. The rollout of end-to-end encryption across many common messaging services makes it even harder to tackle this, something which too many tech companies refuse to even acknowledge.
The Online Safety Bill is right to introduce targeted measures to help address this. Alongside it, we should introduce the IICSA recommended pre-screening requirements, which can stop vile images from ever being uploaded to sites in the first place and prevent any resulting harm.
We should also go further on tougher sentencing for offenders. In 2021, I chaired a commission with the Centre for Social Justice on tackling child sexual abuse. We were told that criminals who paid for child abuse to be livestreamed will only serve about two years in prison on average.
Morally, directing the abuse of a child in Manila is no different from doing it in person in Manchester. Clearly both offenders should be punished alike.
However, despite calling for this back in 2021, not much has changed. Consultations and reviews are welcome, but only make the difference when meaningful action follows. Australia recently introduced a 20-year maximum sentence for people who demand this material - and the UK should do the same.
Whether it is introducing stronger age verification requirements online, or much-needed reforms to the Disclosure and Barring Service, there is so much work to be done - but the drive towards progress seems to be stuck in neutral. Over decades, a status-quo has emerged in Silicon Valley and Westminster, where slow process is prevailing against much needed direct action.
In many cases, it feels like action only comes when a scandal has occurred, rather than being put in place to prevent it in the first place; and tough words are consistently used to delay difficult decisions.
As the IWF highlight in their report today, we should not settle or be comfortable with the idea that because we are “doing something”, we are actually “doing enough”.
In May, the Home Secretary will respond to the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry and must challenge this status-quo head on. It is an opportunity that cannot be missed. Criminals are one step ahead, and we need to give law enforcement the tools they need to push back against this evil.
The report today is a stark reminder of the challenges we face - and how important meaningful action must now be.
For the sake of children across the country, we simply cannot afford to fail.