Internet Safety – The blame game won’t help but new thinking might

When it comes to the topics of internet safety, child sexual exploitation and grooming, too often we all play the blame game. We focus on one player or another, the internet industry, parents, teachers, social workers, and the police or the influence commercialisation has on our children’s attitudes to sex. What this means is that by accident rather than design we provide a sense of panic, misdirection of blame and a distraction that enables predators to hide.

In my opinion, the reason our children are at risk of sexualisation, radicalisation, bullying and other forms of intimidation online is unequivocally down to people, not the technology they use. Cars don’t kill people – people driving them do. The internet is no different.

That said, it is important to consider how well each of us is doing in our efforts to keep young and vulnerable internet users safer. In my experience context is key. Reporting or making comments that lack appropriate context can be misleading.

A recent UK news article highlighted that of 363 reported cases concerning children groomed online since 2013, 263 (72%) involved Facebook. A damning statistic if totally accurate and if taken at face value without considering context.

Placed into context I think it would be surprising if Facebook didn’t feature as a substantial percentage of this number, if for no other reasons than it is the most dominant and successful of current social media providers. They have 1.49 billion active monthly users (Statista, 2nd quarter 2015).

In my opinion Facebook has radically improved its approach to safety over the last five or six years and they have set a standard others in the industry should seek to follow. There is of course still room for improvement, particularly concerning age verification; a problem for the entire internet industry.

The public nature of Facebook ‘cover photos’ presents an opportunity for people to gain an insight into young people’s lives, their interests, where they live and what they look like. These risks manifest themselves if young users or their parents or carers don’t ensure the public cover photos are constructed with privacy and safety in mind. The propensity of young users to accept friend requests from people they don’t actually know is another issue linked as much to behaviour as to Facebook systems.

The reason Facebook may be linked to lots of incidents is not just because it is so big but because the vast majority of young users use their Facebook credentials to sign up to or into other apps.

Most of the recent work we at Ineqe Group have done with schools has reinforced the fact that whether it is bullying or sexual abuse, predators engage in one online space and move their target to another. We’ve looked at a number of cases in schools recently and tested out the things they’ve told us. In one online chat site which encourages users to talk to strangers, our experience was identical to that of the members of our Safe and Secure schools network. The conversation turned almost immediately to sex and an invitation to move to Kik.

Social media platforms obviously have a duty of care but to be fair if you’re going to focus solely on Facebook you need to recognise they have one of the best moderation and support systems in the business. In actuality Facebook, Twitter, Kik and other social media platforms are just public spaces and it is the people who occupy those spaces who represent a risk to one another. I know the Facebook of today is very different from the start-up it was many years ago. Lots of work has been done, not least by Joanna Shields during her time there and more recently Simon Milne, and their trust and safety team. They’ve reduced opportunities to commit crimes against children within and without their environment and recently introduced a photo identification system to identify and remove indecent images of children. So demand more but don’t look for a silver bullet solution or an individual scapegoat.

The truth is commercial companies can only do so much. We don’t expect a hotel manager to investigate a theft, fight or sexual offence on their premises. We do however expect them to report to the police and when they do it is right that we expect the police to respond.

However, the police themselves cannot deal with this problem in isolation. Cuts in policing numbers have consequences in the real world and in the online world the reduction in resources is making a bad situation worse. Underinvestment in online policing over many years makes it a virtual lottery when it comes to providing a realistic deterrence online. Does anyone seriously think predators sharing images or grooming children on the internet think they’ll be caught? If they did there would be far fewer of them.

Child abuse investigations in the UK have increased 88% since 2012 and the National Police Chiefs Council’s (NPCC) child protection lead Simon Bailey estimates there will be 70,000 live child abuse investigations (of all kinds) underway by the end of this year. Set these figures in the context of a reduction of 32,000 police officers and staff over the same period and consider the fact that there are more cuts to come and you have an idea of the pressure the police service is under.

Parents must play their part and accept rather than abdicate greater levels of responsibility. If your child is online you need to be there too and you need to take or make time to understand how it all works. That means get on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. Learn how to set the individual safety settings and get to grips with how to block and report on each.

It’s easy to blame the likes of Facebook, Twitter and, if you don’t understand the way technology works, Google – but that won’t help, sometimes it’s like punching postman Pat because he delivers a letter you don’t like.

In 2012 CEOP estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 IP addresses (devices) in the UK were downloading child abuse images. In my opinion the people who look at these images tend to do so because of a sexual interest in children and recent studies support my view that most have or will at some stage commit a contact offence against children.

We know there are millions of images circulating between nests of offenders in online peer-to-peer networks and on the dark web but far too few resources are actually dedicated to looking for them; in my experience a comparative handful.

We need to change our approach before it’s too late. So rather than hiding behind sporadic attacks on the internet industry we should concentrate our resources and declare war on those who bully, intimidate, harass, radicalise or sexually abuse our children online.

A possible solution is to mobilise a citizen’s army of special ‘digital’ constables. Volunteers from villages, towns and cities across the UK. People who volunteer would be vetted for good character and recruited as special digital constables.

These citizen volunteers would work from police stations across the country giving up a couple of nights a week. Supervised and supported they would simply go online, pretend to be ‘jessica13’ and wait.

Catching the predators can often be like shooting fish in a barrel. The problem is we don’t have enough people to catch enough of them to create a meaningful deterrent. We all need reinforcements. A special digital volunteer force of 1000 plus citizens could turn the tide.

Terrible headlines are repeated every so often and for a short time people pay attention. We understandably get angry and point the finger of blame at those we can see or reach but we can’t just keep staggering from one sensational headline-grabbing case to another. The blame game must end.

I know I live in a glass house when it comes to this and have thrown a few stones myself especially when it comes to blaming the government.  I do however recognise that the government have rightly challenged many of the key players to do better and that they have funded and supported the further development of the Child Abuse Image Database (CAID) but more, much more, needs to be done. Investment is key and it must come from government, if not by significant new financial investment then from creative new thinking. Such new thinking could do well to formalise an approach that supports and encourages the use of digital volunteers.