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Monday, October 7, 2013

Child Abuse and the Net, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave”

The internet is by and large a wonderful invention which has paved the way for progress in many different fields, but the Internet can also be used to break the law and harm our children. 

In a recent article published on Sky News’s website, it has been revealed that children as young as eight have been targeted by pedophiles online, and are being driven to self harm and even suicide, as a result.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre estimates that in the past two years, 424 children world-wide have been blackmailed online in this way. And whilst it may not be immediately obvious why, CEOP suggests that ease of access through the English language is a key factor, as is the perception that Western countries like England are more liberal as a society, and thus making children even more approachable.

"The offenders target English-speaking countries in particular and those that have a culture whereby children, young people, have ready access to the Internet, smart phones and other technology that will allow perpetrators to contact them," warns CEOP Deputy Chief Executive Andy Baker.

Internationally, seven children have already committed suicide and seven seriously self-harmed after having experienced being targeted by pedophiles and other child predators on the internet.

Child predators on the web typically trap children by creating false identities, often pretending to be children themselves, luring them into conversation and then persuading them to share inappropriate images or videos of themselves. Once they’ve shared that content, children are then blackmailed with an awful ultimatum: send more images of a sexual nature, or the original images or videos will be sent to your friends and family. Some pedophiles have even incited children to harm themselves and record the act for their viewing pleasure. 

But why are children such easy targets? John Carr, a UK government adviser on online child safety, believes that children online are especially vulnerable because they are looking for friendship and that child abusers using the internet are skilled manipulators. The combination can have devastating consequences. In the past, internet service providers and tech companies have been quick to absolve themselves of any responsibility for addressing this growing epidemic, but recently, corporations like Google and Microsoft have started to realize they will have to join the battle to safeguard children against abuse online, or face increased pressure from government and parents, who know they cannot fight this kind of abuse alone.

In a partial bid to protect children from this kind of experience when they are surfing the web, software giant Microsoft has recently created the first ever online warning system together with search engine Bing, which activates whenever anyone searches the internet for child abuse images. As well as warning users that child abuse images are illegal, a link for a counseling website will come up, to help those who are addicted to looking at such images. It’s a limited offering, clearly impaired by its inability to remove the illegal images in the first place, but it’s a start, and no doubt the technology will be able to locate some of the users searching for this kind of material, which one would hope might lead to convictions.

Google too, is doing its part. In a pledge to help fight child pornography online, it has donated $5million in a bid to find ways of protecting children and removing harmful images accessed on the web. The money will be given in the form of grants to organizations working on child protection schemes and in June of this year, leading internet companies traveled to Westminster in London, to debate what else could be done to make the internet a safer place for children.

But Google haven’t stopped there. Largely due to mounting pressure from governments, including recently, Britain, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling on internet companies to take more action against child abuse imagery, Google has been tagging offensive images and indexing them with a unique code since 2008. Google now hopes to collect these images and create a large database, to help companies, police and charities to collaborate in an effort to detect and remove illegal content and to punish those responsible.

In 2011 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an organization headquartered in the US, said it had received reports of 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child abuse. There are indications that this is a significant increase from 2007 figures, a worrying sign that this kind of abuse is still on the rise.

Internet Service Providers too, are being pressured into responding to this phenomenon: by 2014, ISPs operating in the UK will have to have introduced default pornography filters with internet users able to opt-out, if they wish. Mobile network operators like Talk Talk, have already starting using filters, but have come under criticism for doing so, as the filter often blocks legitimate websites. The technology then, is not perfect. But again, it’s a start.

One view is that multi-agency collaborations are paving the way forward. On the 24th of September, Fox 11 News reported that thanks to an operation in Northeast and Central Wisconsin targeted child sex predators in Operation Black Veil II, using undercover agents posing as children on Craigslist. 16 arrests were made.

And software companies are now working together to offer protection against kids accidentally coming across illegal images and even monitoring children’s activity too. Parental control software like Net Nanny is designed to do this, but parents remain cautious about monitoring their children’s activities in this way. Where should parents draw the line, and how far can they go before their actions amount to spying?

Google “Spying on your children online” and a host of links pop up, all offering ways in which you can monitor your child’s activities. But are parents right to do this? In a world where dangers online do exist, finding a balance, between keeping our children safe, keeping their trust, and yet allowing them to grow up, is a tough call. But it is a balance every parent must strike if we hope to shepherd the next generation safely through into adulthood. And a collaboration among governments, software companies and internet providers must, undoubtedly, include parents.

Written by Natasha Phillips: Website | Twitter
Edited by Anthony Gonzalez for Child Quest International

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