A sad, sad moment


Mark the date in your diary. Tuesday, 28th May, 2013. On ITN’s 10 o’clock News, the UK’s leading police officer in the fight against online crimes against children made a startling confession.

Peter Davies, CEO of CEOP told the listening and watching nation that Britain’s police are not able to arrest everyone they know is involved in downloading child abuse images. Focus on that word – know.

In their possession the police have the IP addresses of computers or other devices that have been used to download or exchange child abuse images over Peer2Peer networks. Perhaps they have data obtained from other sources as well.

In the vast majority of cases these IP addresses can be translated swiftly into the names and home addresses of individuals. The UK police say somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 such persons are involved. Davies said he would like to arrest them all but the police “do not have the capacity”.

What an awful admission about a crime such as this. No police force anywhere in the world has ever before admitted in public what many insiders have known for some time. The cops are overwhelmed. All Davies has done is speak the truth as he sees it and it is better that this is out in the open than buried away. We cannot have a grown up conversation about a problem if the facts are being concealed, no matter how noble the motive.

It must be all the more painful for Davies because he also knows that, aside from the crime they have already committed against the children depicted in the images they have downloaded, a proportion of these people he cannot arrest will go on to commit hands on offences against their own or other people’s children.

In the face of this Tsunami of offending against children it’s good to hear from Davies that there are some brilliant interventions by the British police which are picking up a number of the worst of the bad guys they have identified in this way and that significant numbers of children are being identified in real life, rescued and safeguarded. But we would all rather the Tsunami wasn’t there to begin with. Moreover this particular Tsunami is not the result of an unpredictable and unstoppable force of Nature.

The UK’s police are one of the leading forces in the world when it comes to combating online crimes against children. If this is the position they are now openly acknowledging they are in, what is happening with police forces in other jurisdictions? It is very unlikely to be any better with a great many of them.

How has the internet industry allowed us to get to such an unpretty pass? They can and should do a lot more. Above all the search engines could do much more. I trust the Home Secretary will have words.

The question for the Government is very straightforward: do they accept that a new status quo exists in Britain where the circulation of child pornography over the internet is part of the general background noise of modern life? Do they think we simply have to adjust to it and get used to it? And if the Government does not wish to acquiesce in such a distressing new reality – and I’m sure they don’t – what are they going to do to turn things around?

The UK’s hotline – the IWF – does a fantastic job but its writ does not run beyond the Web and Newsgroups. These operate in what we might loosely refer to as the public or clear parts of the internet.

However, the largest growth in child abuse images images seems to be occurring among Peer2Peer networks where, historically, only the police can act. See above. Undoubtedly there will also be images circulating on the so-called Darknet but I know of no way of quantifying anything that is happening there. That is no reason for taking our eyes off those bits of the internet we can see and measure.  

My guess is the Darknet  is populated largely by groups of quite technically savvy, nerdy types who have made their way to it through the more public parts of the internet. By attacking offending there we will therefore be choking off or reducing the supply line that leads to the Darknet.

Questions in need of answers

What is INHOPE, the worldwide network of hotlines, doing? Whatever it is it is plainly not enough, not by a long chalk. At EU level Commissioner Neelie Kroes has been trying to speed up take down times for child abuse materials that have been identified on web sites. All well and good but it is so far off being the most important issue in this space it almost beggars belief that so much time and energy has been devoted to it in the CEO Coalition.

Peter Davies’ announcement poses many questions. They urgently deserve  answers.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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