12/11/2015 09:54 GMT | Updated 12/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Virtual Behaviour: Where Do the Boundaries Lie?

"Do the features of anonymity and connectivity free the darker sides of our nature?" Jamie Bartlett, The Dark Net, 2014

The internet is vast and seemingly borderless, an anonymous space where users feel as if they can behave and manufacture an identity as they please. Anonymity on the Internet is viewed as both a blessing and a curse. It begs the question whether it is a liberating and protective tool or a dangerous temptation for unsuspecting criminals?

One of the most valuable aspects of anonymity online is that it allows freedom of speech. Concealment of real identity means that individuals feel empowered to liberate their voice without having to fear the repercussions. People are often able to challenge political barriers with views that could put them in danger.

Anonymity also allows people to discuss sensitive issues and subjects that some may shield in real life, such as religion, mental illness, sexual orientation. The expression of feelings online often lifts the burden in real life.

The nature of the Internet means that people behave as they please, and not necessarily how they would do in real life. Individuals link being anonymous to being undetectable and therefore they feel as if they are not accountable for their actions online. This is where we start to see the destructive side effects of anonymity come into play.

Anonymity is the best disguise for most cyber criminals. More often than not, criminals cannot be traced as layers upon layers of encryption mask them. Most of the illegal activity occurring via the Internet is, at first glance, obscured or hidden.

Cyber criminals legitimise their illegal online behaviour by separating the virtual world from reality. Users of the dark-net cower behind their computer screens, seemingly protected from punishment. In particular, the Internet has significantly changed the way many sex offenders operate, with an alarming number of cases now involving an element of interaction online.

Whether this is the sharing of an image, the grooming of a child or the viewing of live-streamed abuse, we are increasingly seeing paedophiles reaching out and being able to contact the children from behind their computer screens.

What is interesting, is that many only act on the fantasies of their online personas via the Internet. They have little or no intention to take part in physical abuse initially. But as they normalise the behaviour over time, many will physically commit the crime, thus fuelling the cycle of online abuse.

To stop child sexual abuse means that we must nip it in the bud quickly before it grows completely out of control. Whilst possessing and sharing explicit images is still a severe crime, early offenders are less likely to take part in physical abuse. By halting the spread of illicit content in the first place, we can prevent physical abuse from happening in the long term.

This is the point where the virtual world meets real life and where we can really work to make a difference.