There is little in life as important as protecting our children from harm and this very much includes online. The UK Safer Internet Centre, a partnership of three leading UK charities and one of 32 European Safer Internet Centres, has existed over the last decade doing exactly this; protecting children online and enabling them to benefit from everything that technology offers them. It very much mirrors the UK Government’s objective to make the UK the safest place to be online. This work spans managing illegal child sex abuse material online, providing Helpline support and raising awareness of the issues through campaigns, resources, services, and tools.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is the UK agency tasked with managing illegal child sexual abuse material online and has, alongside its partners, been successful in making the UK particularly hostile to hosting illegal child sex abuse material (significantly less than 1% globally). More worryingly, the IWF has reported a dramatic rise in the number have self-generated intimate images of children over the last 12 months, rising from 38,400 in 2019. To 68,000 in 2020, a particular cause for concern and is suspected to be influenced by COVID lockdown restrictions
The UK Safer Internet Centre has three helplines operated by South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL). The National Centre for reporting legal but harmful content, a helpline that supports the UK children’s workforce with online safety issues and also the UK Revenge Porn Helpline. The latter, created in 2015 supports victims of non-consensual intimate image abuse and has seen up to a tripling of calls compared to a year ago. Looking at the characteristics of calls to the helpline, many victims describe issues very much aggravated by lockdown restrictions.
The final component of the UK Safer Internet Centre is awareness raising, and this is typified by Safer Internet Day. Safer Internet Day 2021 was exceptional, reaching 51% of children, and 38% of parents. With over 2,000 supporting organisations and trending on social media all day, the impact of the day was extraordinary and evidence that now, more than ever, focusing on the issue of online harms is so important.
These last 12 months has certainly taught us that the internet and technology is such a fundamentally important part of our lives, having maintained some form of normality, in terms of entertainment, contact, communication, socialisation as well as economic and commercial benefits and stability.
Brexit, ePrivacy and Online Harms Bill
Evidently COVID has affected all of our lives but isn’t the only significant change occurring at the moment. Brexit is also an enormous change. The UK Safer Internet Centre, as one of 32 National European Safer Internet Centres, has been co funded by the European Unionover the last 10 years and will clearly be ineligible for this continued funding beyond the current arrangements that end this year. As yet, the UK Government remain non-committal in terms of continuing to financially support this important work. The charities remain acutely concerned of the potential impact that this will have on protecting children online.
The third landscape change is the UK Government’s introduction of the Online Harms Bill that has the objective of making the UK the safest place to be online. The Online Harms Bill will include the introduction of a regulator and a regulatory framework to structure social media and other large online platforms and this will be an important step. There are many parallels with the automotive sector in the 1960’s when regulation saw the introduction of safety features such as seat belts. Today, safety is clearly an important consideration for many and so influences automotive design, markets as well as consumer rights and redress.
There are other aspects that leaving the EU has had an impact upon. In December 2020, following the transposition of the European Electronic Communications Code, the definition of the electronic communications service provider expanded under the current ePrivacy directive. The directive’s definition was also updated to reflect these changes and now began to apply to wider categories of providers. This, however, had the consequence of making it illegal for platforms to scan for illegal content, for example, child sexual abuse material as well as any other harmful content. As a result, Facebook, took the decision to cease scanning for this type of content on its platform. The UK, evidently, is now not subject to the ePrivacy directive, and alongside the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, made it very clear that scanning should continue within its jurisdiction. There is however an associated impact from an operational perspective, for example, reporting by UK Safer Internet Centre of legal but harmful content has very much been impacted, in terms of response and removal rates.
There are many significant changes currently that affect everyone online and we need to ensure that those most vulnerable, particularly children, are not impacted and their exposure of online harms are very much identified and removed.
Everyone should benefit from technology, free from harm.
David Wright is SWGfL and UK Safer Internet Centre Director.