‘Insidious’ tech firms must protect children online, says campaigner

A leading children’s rights campaigner has labelled technology companies “insidious” for putting freedom of expression above the need to protect young people from abuse online.

Beeban Kidron, a film-maker and member of the House of Lords, said it was scandalous that the rights of children, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, were not protected online.

“There is no technological impediment to delivering children’s rights online,” she said. “There is no technological impediment to stopping the institutional exploitation of children. The only barrier is the willingness to do so.

“It is about designing technology to deliver in principle and practice. It seems to me scandalous that the [UN Convention on the Rights of the Child] is not understood to be applicable online … or that our schools don’t have a statutory duty to teach relationship sex education … particularly comprehensive information about what goes on online.

“Our responsibility for the rights of children applies irrespective of the technology they are using, and it is insidious of industry to take a freedom of expression defence while they are institutionally exploiting children.”

Lady Kidron was speaking at the How Safe Are Our Children? conference organised by the NSPCC, after new figures displaying the scale of the use of the internet to commit sexual crimes against young people were revealed.

The figures, obtained by the NSPCC, show that more than 3,000 child sexual offences in the past year were facilitated or carried out on the internet. The data was collated for the first time after police across England and Wales were forced to add “cyber flags” to sexual offences against children in which the internet was used.

Out of 44 police forces, 38 responded to a freedom of information request that revealed 3,186 recorded sexual crimes against children in which the internet was used as a gateway. These included more than 100 rapes, and crimes including grooming, live streaming of abuse and child sexual exploitation.

Most victims of the offences were 13 years old, but 272 children under 10 and a one-year-old were involved in the crimes, which took place in 2015-16.

The data on the use of the internet in sex crimes against young people comes as the number of child sexual offences reported to police in the UK continues to rise. In 2014-15 it reached 47,008, the highest number in a decade.

Some experts believe that while the rise is down to more reporting, the internet has also served to increase the number of children being abused, in particular via live streaming.

Kidron is the founder of 5Rights, which seeks to make sure the rights of children are safeguarded online. She said there was no place offline where children were treated in the same way as adults, but the internet had been created to treat everyone as equal.

Katie O’Donovan, public policy and government relations manager for Google, told the conference the company knew it had a responsibility to keep people safer online.

“There really is progress being made from Google’s point of view,” she said. “We are part of the ecosystem of the internet and we have to take responsibility to address the threat. As a technology company that is our first responsibility – how can we use the technology to help keep people safer?”

O’Donovan said two of the most important products Google has created were an easy tool to allow parents and carers to provide a safer search option on YouTube, and YouTube Kids for primary school-aged children, the content of which is user generated but age appropriate.

“Flagging and reporting content is something we have been doing for a number of years, but I think we constantly look at how we can do better. We have teams around the world reviewing flags 24/7. But we know that technological solutions will never solve these issues, and there is a really important education and societal issue here to ensure that people are equipped to deal with this. And it is really important we are part of that.”

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