Campaigners are urging no more delays to the Online Safety Bill
Tens of thousands of online grooming crimes have been recorded during the wait for updated online safety laws, as campaigners urged no more delays to the Online Safety Bill.
The long-awaited Bill is expected to become law in the autumn, but has faced a lengthy route to the statute book with repeated changes and delays to the proposed legislation.
Recent days have seen ministers also forced to defend the Bill amid concern from tech companies that the legislation will undermine the use of encryption.
The NSPCC has called on tech giants and MPs to back the Bill, as the charity said that 34,000 online grooming crimes had been recorded by UK police forces over the last six years.
The charity first called for more robust online safety regulation in 2017.
Citing data from 42 UK police forces, the NSPCC said that 6,350 offences related to sexual communication with a child were recorded last year – a rise of 82% since the offence was introduced in 2017/18.
The data shows that 73% of the crimes involved either Snapchat or Meta-linked websites, with 5,500 offences taking place against primary school-age children.
The figures come as Parliament prepares to finish debating the Bill when summer recess ends in a few weeks.
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “Today’s research highlights the sheer scale of child abuse happening on social media and the human cost of fundamentally unsafe products.
“The number of offences must serve as a reminder of why the Online Safety Bill is so important and why the ground-breaking protections it will give children are desperately needed.
“We’re pleased the Government has listened and strengthened the legislation so companies must tackle how their sites contribute to child sexual abuse in a tough but proportionate way, including in private messaging.”
The charity said that the figures also showed that in cases where the gender of the victim was known, 83% of social media grooming cases in the last six years took place against girls.
Around 150 apps, games and websites were also used to target children, according to the police data.
The NSPCC argues that the Bill is vital if children are to be protected from abuse.
If passed, it would introduce tougher duties on firms and tech bosses to protect young users.
But the NSPCC also wants assurances that the legislation will regulate new technologies, such as AI.
“It’s now up to tech firms, including those highlighted by these stark figures today, to make sure their current sites and future services do not put children at unacceptable risk of abuse,” Sir Peter said.
Sophia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was exploited online by a man pretending to be a teenager when she was 15.
After meeting on an app and initially having nice conversations about her interests, she noticed a change after four days.
She said: “He had started asking for selfies of me, then asking me to take my clothes off and send photos.
“When he threatened me and started being angry, I was petrified. He used the images to control me.
“I wasn’t even allowed to use the toilet without his permission. I was afraid to tell anyone because of the photos and his threats.
“He threatened to share the images of me with friends and family he’d found through my social media if I stopped replying.”
Sophia said she did not want to see anyone after the experience and that it “massively” affected her school life.
It was not until two years later that the National Crime Agency visited her to explain what she had been subjected to.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, said: “We urge companies to make sure there are robust safety features brought in if they intend to introduce end-to-end encryption to their platforms.
“Without them, end-to-end encryption will be a smokescreen for abusers, helping them hide what they’re doing, and enabling them to continue to hurt children and destroy young lives.
“Some of the worst sexual predators in the world can now have potentially any child within their grasp with a few clicks of a mouse’s button. The internet has allowed access to those who want to groom and sexually abuse children, and we deal with the fallout every day.”
A Government spokesman said: “This is exactly why we are bringing forward our landmark Online Safety Bill, which will become law in a matter of months — and as recognised, we’ve bolstered the Bill along the way to strengthen protections for children.
“We’re working closely with Ofcom to make sure these are enforced as soon as possible so children are protected, and in the meantime, law enforcement has been working closely with social media platforms to bring perpetrators to justice for the abhorrent crimes that are committed online.”