31/05/2013 09:56 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 06:12 BST

We Must Pull the Plug on Internet Access to Images of Child Abuse


I wish I wasn't writing this. Just two weeks ago I told on this very blog about the killer of Tia Sharp's obsession with child sexual abuse images. Now today there is a sickening feeling of deja vu as the nation takes stock of the appalling news that another child killer, Mark Bridger, had also spent hours trawling the internet for child abuse images before he took the decision to abduct and murder five year old April Jones last October.

Let's get one thing clear - this is not 'porn'. Every time someone talks about 'child porn' it is a slur on the victims who have suffered horrific abuse in order for this sickening material to be produced. Calling it 'porn' also blurs the line with adult sexual content. When we call for child abuse images to be removed from the internet this is not about censorship. This isn't about stopping adults doing as they choose within the law. This is about detecting and prosecuting those who deal in illegal images.

Some people are asking why is this appalling material available? Why hasn't it been banned? Well it is banned - it is illegal and if anyone is caught they should suffer the full force of the law. However, the sheer number of child abuse images online means even law enforcement agencies are fighting an uphill battle.

There has been an explosion of this kind of material since 1990 - before the internet became big business - when there were just 7000 hard copies in circulation in England and Wales (according to a Home Office estimate). Now police confiscate at least 35,000 images a day from offenders found with the material on their home computers. It's not uncommon for men to be caught with hundreds of thousands of images, if not millions.

It's estimated that around three in four convicted offenders use indecent images of children to stimulate themselves sexually, to lower the inhibitions of their victims or to teach the child to copy the activity in real-life situations.

So what can be done?

It's important to be clear that search engines already do a lot. It's not as simple as being able to go straight through to find child abuse images from any search engine. The problem is about sites that then then link to other sites and which eventually lead to people being able find these images.

John Carr, government advisor on this issue, has said that it wouldn't be difficult for a pop up message to come up warning people when they try to search for child abuse images that it's been logged and may be passed to law enforcement agencies. We also need proper resourcing for bodies such as CEOP who trace people who share these images and also trace the victims so they can be rescued. And it's important to remember that many people share images through closed networks like the 'hidden wiki' which has nothing to do with search engines. Images are even shared on social networking sites.

But industry, including search engines, have a big role to play and can solve all manner of problems when there is profit to be made so we are asking that they use just some of that money to solve this problem.

The internet is still relatively new and we are to a large extent still in a Wild West world that still means child abusers can find hidden corners in which to ply their vile trade. The good news is that I think we are gradually getting better at catching them.

For some time we have been concerned about the growing number of these obscene images which are becoming more easily available and can fuel the fantasies of offenders like Bridger. We recently discovered that an astonishing 26million had been confiscated by just five police forces in England and Wales during the last couple of years. This case points to the ever-growing evidence that there is a worrying link between looking at this vile kind of material and committing other serious sexual assaults.

April's murder, made worse for the family by Bridger's refusal to say where her body is, has left a deep scar on the nation. The NSPCC's thoughts are with her family and friends and we hope Bridger's whole life sentence is some small comfort after such a horrendous ordeal.

Though it will not bring her back, I hope that the public outcry around April's death will lead to effective measures to stamp out images of child abuse on the internet.