Cleaning up the internet of abuse images and videos - that in the worst cases depict children being raped and tortured - is a global challenge.
The significant achievements of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) are crucial in this battle and this week its annual report revealed a staggering 417% increase over two years in the volume of images reported and removed. An increase like this is in many ways a victory but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The IWF's success in finding this content, protecting children worldwide, shows what can be achieved when a proactive approach is taken.
Every image or video is a crime scene. In every one there is a child who has been the victim of horrific sexual abuse, and every time an adult looks at an image they are increasing the market and demand for these images, meaning more children endure this terrible crime. In the UK alone, according to the National Crime Agency, there are an estimated 50,000 people involved in downloading and sharing child abuse images.
Viewing these images is horrific enough in itself but these offenders may also sexually abuse children in their care or others they know. They pose a very real threat to children living in our communities. Digital technology is affordable and accessible and internet usage increasing worldwide. This makes access to child abuse imagery online available to a far greater number of people than ever before, as well as increasing the potential for UK children to be groomed from anywhere in the world.
No one knows for sure the exact number of child abuse imagery in circulation but it could be as high as 100 million. Can you even comprehend the level of suffering that is behind these appalling and degrading images, or the number of children involved? Knowing their abuse has been recorded and that others may be repeatedly sharing the video or image can make it more difficult for a child who has suffered sexual abuse to rebuild their lives.
One child we helped was 'Charlotte', who knows just how devastating this online crime can be. She was tricked into sending an indecent image of herself after meeting an online abuser who pretended to be her age. Our Protect and Respect service helped her move on from her ordeal.
"It made me feel really low and upset. When I meet new people, I always think that they could have seen it. The picture may still be out there and they know about it. It makes me feel very bad about myself and anxious."
In recent years, the proactive British approach has been so effective that less than 1 per cent of abuse imagery is now hosted on UK sites. In the past two years the IWF has been able to actively search for this material and alerting national and international law enforcement. This strategy is making a huge impact, leading to more children being protected and more images removed.
However, it remains important to continue the pressure on Internet Service Providers to take responsibility for the content on their sites and to continue to make the case that it needs to be a global priority - because online sexual abuse is a crime without borders and tackling it needs to be approached in a way that reflects this.
We are increasingly concerned about the role of criminal gangs in other parts of the world, profiting from the hosting and streaming of abuse. More international work is needed to reach out to safeguard unidentified victims and help them to recover from their terrible ordeals. The UK must lead the way in tackling these groups.
In recent years, the internet has become a more hostile place for online sexual offenders, thanks to police, Governments and others increasingly working together. But those who target children or horde these vile images, sometimes on the other side of the world, are always trying to stay one step ahead. This includes the use of hidden services on the 'dark web' and the increased use of disguised websites that appear to host legal content until certain actions are taken.
For children suffering appalling abuse, which may be behind closed doors in the UK, or at the hands of criminal gangs in another country, it can seem like they are living a daily nightmare and there is no way out. But there is a way out if we keep up the pressure on those who target vulnerable children for abuse. .
With the volume of abuse imagery still in circulation, more needs to be done to clear the web of this grotesque content. Those who have not taken the fight to those involved in this sick trade need to rise to the challenge. Good progress has been made to identify victims of online abuse and disrupt the grotesque activities of those behind their suffering - but we are a long way from saying the job is done.
The police, for example, have tools to detect and triage abuse images - but not all forces have access to these. And we're not yet harnessing the tech skills we have in this country to try new ways to use technology to disrupt people who get on the treacherous path to viewing abuse images.
I think we need a prize for breakthroughs in this area. The proactive approach and dedication of the IWF amongst others in making the internet a safer place, needs to be adopted by others around the world who are not yet acting.
The NSPCC will continue to work with the IWF and the police in the ongoing battle against this sickening trade, in order to protect the children in these images, help them recover and bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.
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