Home Secretary Sajid Javid has demanded that tech firms step up their efforts to tackle online child sexual exploitation.
His call to companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple came during a speech at the headquarters of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
Child abuse has long been an issue, with tech firms and experts meeting over the years to consider how best to identify online grooming, prevent child abuse images, and the best techniques to detect and remove child abuse videos.
During the speech, the Home Secretary warned that there has been a 700 percent increase in child abuse images being referred to the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the last five years.
He also said that there was up to 80,000 people in the UK that presented some kind of sexual threat to children online and he said that this material was increasingly featuring younger and younger children.
Javid called on the tech industry to work in partnership with each other and with the government to stop online child sexual abuse. This included sharing solutions and best practice to improve the response.
“I’ve been impressed by the progress the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple have made on counter-terrorism,” said the Home Secretary. “Now I want to see the same level of commitment for child sexual exploitation.
Javid said there has been some good work in this area in recent years, but the reality was that the threat has evolved quicker than industry’s response and industry has not kept up.
And the Home Secretary said there are some tech companies that refuse to take it seriously.
“I am not just asking for change, I am demanding it,” said Javid. “And the people are demanding it too. And if web giants do not take more measures to remove this type of content from their platforms, then I won’t be afraid to take action.”
And he threatened to introduce legislation if action was not taken.
“How far we legislate will be informed by the action and attitude that industry takes,” said Javid.
Javid said he expects tech firms to block child sexual abuse material as soon as companies detect it being uploaded. He also demanded that firms take action to stop child grooming taking place on their platforms.
Javid also wants tech giants to work with government and law enforcement to shut down live-streamed child abuse, and for companies to be much more forward leaning in helping law enforcement agencies to deal with these types of crimes.
He is also asking for a greater level of openness and transparency and a willingness to share best practice and technology between companies.
This was echoed by the head of the National Crime Agency.
“The technology exists for industry to design-out these offences and to stop this material from being viewed,” said Lynne Owens, the director general at the NCA. “Some online platforms have taken important steps to improve safety, but we are asking for more.”
“We want industry to invest in preventing these online offences from happening in the first place,” she said. “It is not just a matter for law enforcement. We need industry to make it harder for anyone to access indecent images on the internet.”
The Home Secretary also announced an extra £21.5m investment over the next 18 months to tackle the issue, with most of the funding going to UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
It should be noted that the tech industry has co-operated with law enforcement and governments for a while now in an effort to combat online abuse of children.
In August 2014 for example, Google tipped off local police in Texas, after its systems detected child abuse images hidden inside the emails of a Gmail user. Google has also improved the tools it uses to fight distribution of child pornography online.
In 2013, Microsoft Bing became the first search engine to display pop-up warnings to users who search for child abuse content.
Google has also funded a number of child protection charities in the past. In 2013 for example Google donated £1m to the Internet Watch Foundation.
Tech firms are also increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to help them identify abuse images.
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