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Record levels of internet grooming spark calls for stronger Online Safety Bill

Dominic Lipinski

By Martyn Landi, PA Technology Correspondent

The number of online grooming crimes recorded by police has risen sharply in the last three years, the NSPCC warned as it urged the Government to strengthen its plans for internet regulation.

Figures obtained by the NSPCC from 42 police forces across England and Wales showed the number of recorded offences involving sexual communication with a child had increased by 69% since 2018.

The charity said design flaws on social media platforms are being exploited by offenders, enabling younger users to be targeted, and the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill – introducing regulation to the sector – needs to go further in order to match the scale of the issue.

According to figures compiled by the NSPCC from Freedom of Information requests to police forces, 5,441 online grooming offences were recorded between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase of 69% from the 3,217 recorded in same period in 2017-18.

The numbers also showed an increase in recorded cases of nine percent from last year.

Facebook-owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, were used in almost half of the offences where the means of communication was known over the last 12 months, with Instagram the most commonly used.

Snapchat was also named in more than a quarter of cases where the communication form was known.

In response to the findings, the NSPCC has called on the Government to take more robust action to combat the rise of online grooming, and urged tech firms such as Facebook to invest in technology that would still allow the company to identify and disrupt such activities even if all its platforms begin using end-to-end encryption.

The charity also warned that it believes the most recent figures do not provide a full understanding of the scale of the issue during the pandemic, citing Facebook’s admission that it had missed some child abuse content in the second half of 2020 because of technical issues – although it is now working to remove any content previously missed.

“Year after year tech firms’ failings result in more children being groomed and record levels of sexual abuse,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC.

“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the Government must put child protection front and centre of legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.

“Safety must be the yardstick against which the legislation is judged and ministers’ welcome ambition will only be realised if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”

The NSPCC said it has been encouraged by the recent wave of new safety features introduced on a number of platforms, including TikTok and Instagram, but warned that the firms are still playing catch-up on the issue because of years of poorly designed systems.

The draft Online Safety Bill is due to be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs and peers from September, and the charity said this is a critical opportunity to ensure the proposed legislation provides solutions to comprehensively fix the ways platforms are currently being exploited by abusers.

“This is abhorrent behaviour and we work quickly to find it, remove it and report it to the relevant authorities,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.

“We also block adults from messaging under 18s they’re not connected with and have introduced technology that makes it harder for potentially suspicious accounts to find young people.

“With tens of millions of people in the UK using our apps every day, we are determined to continue developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.”

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