A boycott of social media sites could force firms to take action to safeguard children, a senior police officer says. A public boycott of social media is also the one option to drive firms to offer protection to kids from abuse, the rustic’s main kid coverage police officer has stated.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey said the companies were able to “eradicate” indecent imagery on their platforms. Mr Bailey, the UK’s lead officer for child protection, said websites would take notice of “reputational damage”.
The Internet Association, which represents tech firms including Twitter and Facebook, said the industry spent millions removing abusive content.
The number of images on the police’s child abuse image database has ballooned from less than 10,000 in the 1990s to 13.4 million currently.
Starting on Monday, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will hold two weeks of hearings focusing on internet companies’ responses to the problem, during which Mr Bailey – and executives from Facebook, Google, Apple, BT and Microsoft – will give evidence.
Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection, said tech companies had abdicated their duty to safeguard children and were only paying attention due to fear of reputational damage.
The senior officer, who is Norfolk’s chief constable, said he believed sanctions such as fines would be “little more than a drop in the ocean” to social media companies, but that the government’s online harms white paper could be a “game changer” if it led to effective punitive measures.
Bailey recommended a boycott could be one option to hit giant platforms, which he believes have the generation and budget to “just about eliminate the supply, the importing, and the distribution of indecent imagery”.
Despite the growing problem, Bailey said he had seen nothing so far “that has given me the confidence that companies that are creating these platforms are taking their responsibilities seriously enough”.
He told the Press Association: “Ultimately I think the only thing they will genuinely respond to is when their brand is damaged. Ultimately the financial penalties for some of the giants of this world are going to be an absolute drop in the ocean.
“But if the brand starts to become tainted, and consumers start to see how certain platforms are permitting abuse, are permitting the exploitation of young people, then maybe the damage to that brand will be so significant that they will feel compelled to do something in response.
“We have got to look at how we drive a conversation within our society that says ‘do you know what, we are not going to use that any more, that system or that brand or that site’ because of what they are permitting to be hosted or what they are allowing to take place.”
In every playground there is likely to be someone with pornography on their phone, Bailey said as he described how a growing number of young men are becoming “increasingly desensitised” and progressing to easily available illegal material. Society is “not far off the point where somebody will know somebody” who has viewed illegal images, he said.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of images on the child abuse image database from fewer than 10,000 in the 1990s to 13.4m, with more than 100m variations of these.
Last month, the government launched a consultation on new laws proposed to tackle illegal content online. The white paper, which was revealed in the Guardian, legislated for a new statutory duty of care by social media firms and the appointment of an independent regulator, which is likely to be funded through a levy on the companies. It was welcomed by senior police and children’s charities.
Bailey believes if effective regulation is put in place it could free up resources to begin tackling the vaster dark web. He expressed concern that the spread of 4G and 5G networks worldwide would open up numerous further opportunities for the sexual exploitation of children.
Speaking at a conference organised by StopSO, a charity that works with offenders and those concerned about their sexual behaviour to minimise the risk of offending, of which Bailey is patron, he recently said that plans from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to increase privacy on the social network would make life harder for child protection units. But he told the room: “There is no doubt that thinking is shifting around responsibility of tech companies. I think that argument has been won, genuinely.
“Of course, the proof is going to be in the pudding with just how ambitious the white paper is, how effective the punitive measures will be, or not.”
Andy Burrows, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s associate head of child safety online, said: “It feels like social media sites treat child safeguarding crises as a bad news cycle to ride out, rather than a chance to make changes to protect children.”
In response to the calls, the Internet Association said online companies had invested in content moderators and developing technology to remove abusive content.
A spokesperson said the companies also work with organisations around the world, including Internet Watch Foundation, a UK-based child abuse watchdog, to remove these images from the internet.
“Internet companies are working hard to get this right and continue to engage with the government’s recent online harms White Paper, but we must ensure that any new measures are proportionate and do not damage the significant benefits that the internet brings to the UK.”
Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has called for the industry to “come together” to find a solution to the problem.
“There are still many open questions here and we’ll consult with safety experts, law enforcement and governments on the best ways to implement safety measures,” he wrote in a blog post.
“We’ll also need to work together with other platforms to make sure that as an industry we get this right. The more we can create a common approach, the better.”