Webwatch: Internet giants failing to properly tackle online abuse, inquiry told

Internet giants are failing to properly tackle child sex abuse and remain “immune from liability no matter how reckless or indifferent” they are to the risks posed by paedophiles, an inquiry has heard.

Lawyer William Chapman said some technology companies are even considering features which will “make it easier, not harder, for child abuse to take place online”, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard on Monday.

Mr Chapman, representing three victims of online sexual abuse, told the hearing: “These firms bestride the world, telling us they are heroes of the technological revolution, they have amazed us with the things they can do … the result is that they have legendary wealth.

“The ultimate question you have to ask is this: is it really beyond the wealth and wit of these technology companies to prevent and detect child sexual abuse on their platforms?

“Or is there something incompatible with their commercial objectives and their culture that makes them bridle at the necessary steps to curb this modern scourge?”

A prospective version of the Google Chrome browser will contain end-to-end encryption making it “harder to block harmful content” and “easier, not harder, for child abuse to take place online”, he added.

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

Police and Government officials as well as representatives of online giants Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft are due to give evidence at public hearings from May 13 to 24.

However some hearings involving the technology firms will be closed sessions and not accessible to the public or press owing to “sensitive matters”, according to the timetable.

Two of the victims represented by Mr Chapman, a brother and sister who cannot be named, are not eligible for compensation because the abuse they suffered took place wholly online, the hearing was told.

Mr Chapman said: “We say it is equally unacceptable that victims of sexual offences committed online are not eligible for compensation in the same way that those who provide the technology that facilitates this abuse are immune from liability, no matter how reckless or indifferent to the risks to children their platforms are.”

He added: “We say the that the case for regulating these companies is now beyond argument.

“Technology can and must solve the problem that technology has created.”

The wide-ranging hearings will look at the policies and responses of internet providers, online platforms and other relevant technology companies in relation to child abuse.

Andy Burrows, associate head of child safety online at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said: “It is completely absurd that just as society is demanding a safer internet, tech firms are creating services that will make it easier for children to be abused on their sites.

“But we have seen for more than a decade that children’s safety is not top of the priority list for many social media platforms.

“This is why statutory regulation of these companies is the only way forward, along with tough consequences imposed on the firms who fail to protect their young users.”

Children aged between 12 and 15 now spend nearly three hours per day online, according to Ofcom 2018 research, the inquiry was told.

It marks an increase on the two and a half hour’s children spent online in the regulator’s 2015 findings.

Jacqueline Carey, lead counsel to the inquiry, said the figures show “how easily accessible children are to those intent on causing children harm”.

The inquiry, which is due to hear from Facebook’s global safety policy manager Julie de Bailliencourt on Tuesday, continues.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PA Wire.

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