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The Internet & Child Abuse Offenders – what are the current challenges? – Opinion piece by Mark Williams-Thomas

The Internet has created a global gateway and market, with no boundaries or distances to travel. As a result the policing of online child abuse offenders has required a co-ordinated international policing response.

So how big is the problem of child abuse material online, and is their a direct link between viewing child abuse material and committing contact offences?

In the late 1990’s, partly in response to changing cultural sensibilities, and government legislation, child abuse material moved first from being a commercial enterprise (a specialised form of more widely available traditional pornography), into a cottage industry, where child abusers started to swap and share photographs, videos and books with other like minded individuals, and then again into a commercial enterprise which ran alongside the amateur cottage industry.  However this re- commercialisation was run by new entrepreneurs after it became clear how much money could be made and how the Internet could facilitate profits.

So what are the gains? Put simply – considerable.  That is why organised crime is now heavily involved in the production and distribution of child abuse material as well as the trafficking of children. Put this together with the amount of child abuse material websites, peer 2 peer, file sharing and social networking sites the problem is significant .It is a supply and demand issue. The more people wanting to view child abuse material the more children that need to be abused.

Another significant issue for policing is the amount of material that can be stored on very small devices. For just £70 you can buy a 1 Terabyte external hard drive that will store, in theory, up to 120 movies, or 250,000 thousand photos. So imagine how much a 3 or 5 Terabyte can hold, and you can see the enormous task facing police.

However for far too long I have been concerned about the investigation of those arrested for possessing child abuse material. If 30,000 images are recovered and 15,000 identified as abuse images- the individual will be charged with these. But what happens to the other 15,000? Who sits down and watches each image? The simple answer is in nearly all cases nobody- the offender is already charged and this would be considerable additional work.

With the huge demands on policing it is not surprising that very few officers have the time to view 15,000 images and focus on victim identification. And yet this is where you are going to identify any new victims and very importantly the contact offences by the individual.  A comparison in policing terms is as follows:  should we go after those that use drugs, or should we go after those that produce and supply the drugs. The answer to me is simple and this is why I believe policing the Internet needs to change.

This is something I recently tackled in a report I did for BBCNewsnight in which I highlighted the need to focus on victim identification.

So what exactly is the link between “viewing” and “doing ” – I can tell you as a practitioner I  have investigated lots of child abuse offenders and the link does exist. Almost every offender I investigated in my time in the police who had child abuse material had also committed contact offences. And whilst I have said this for years – it is only now that a report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has identified the link between those who possess still and moving indecent images of children and contact offences.

And finally another concern I have is the need for those undertaking risk assessments to properly understand how offenders use the Internet. Sadly I have seen all too many risk assessments completed by people who fail to properly understand online offenders behaviour.

It is true that policing and the criminal justice system has done a lot to tackle the issues on online child sex offenders – however it does need to address some of these major issues.

Mark Williams-Thomas (@mwilliamsthomasis a TV Presenter, Criminologist and Child Protection Expert. Mark is currently making two exclusive one hour programs for ITV1, for broadcast in October . He also recently interviewed Stuart Hazell who has since been charged with the murder of schoolgirl Tia Sharp . You can see more of Mark’s works, investigations, shootings, campaigns and more on his website.

Join us for a Special Evening with Mark Williams-Thomas @SWSCmedia on Tuesday (18 September) 8:00 PM UK / 3:00 PM ET.



4 thoughts on “The Internet & Child Abuse Offenders – what are the current challenges? – Opinion piece by Mark Williams-Thomas

  1. Thank you for addressing this critical topic. It is so important for the general public, child advocates and the defenders of “freedom of speech” to hear about the positive correlation that has been noted between the demand for child pornography and child abuse. It is also terribly worrisome…

    Posted by dorleem | September 15, 2012, 6:03 pm
  2. Victim identification is a hugely important yet profoundly challenging issue.

    I recall some ten years ago being asked by the Police to have social work practitioners review a folder they had compiled of facial images of children and young people subject to abuse taken from the internet, to determine if any of the children were known to us. The folder had perhaps thirty facial images on each page and was some three inches thick: many thousands of children. In 2012, I dread to think how many more images have been collated.

    How we identify these tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of children is extremely testing. They may live anywhere in the world. They get older and their faces change. Some may be identified by detailed investigation of the materials or the source of the materials, but my understanding is that only a small percentage of such investigations results in clear victim identification. And as Mark points out, not all materials collated in investigations are studied.

    I presume that law enforcement agencies in various countries now use facial recognition software to search the internet for comparative investigatory material. Other than that, what we can do? To my mind it remains a very frustrating and profoundly unsatisfactory situation in child protection. How to identify and protect these children and young people remains an unanswered question that we are going to have to answer.

    Posted by ForSocialWork (@ForSocialWork) | September 15, 2012, 9:57 pm
  3. Good opinion piece Mark.

    I think the problem you face is that the majority of the general public see ‘dealing’ with internet child abuse as a police matter yet as you highlight, most forces don’t even have the manpower to sift through videos identifying additional victims of abuse.

    Research indicates that parental ‘policing’ of children’s computer activities is not as effective as first envisaged. Also, children are regularly exposed to sexually explicit material on the net which can desensitise them and normalise some behaviours. In addition, as you point out, there is a lack of understanding amongst professionals about ‘how offenders use the internet’. I think this can be extended to young people who although very computer savvy in some areas, are also not really aware of how offenders work.

    In my opinion, internet providers need to step up and be more proactive in fighting this problem, and we need a social response that a), recognises the sheer scale of internet-related child abuse, (and in fact child abuse per se), and b), tackles the lack of qualified professionals available to deal with it.
    The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, (article 17) called for “the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being” yet the internet seems to get legged up with adult’s rights to free speech and anonymity – an ideal arena for child abusers.

    Posted by Theresauno | September 18, 2012, 4:18 pm
  4. Great article Mark! I haven’t read anything like this in a while. I just started taking my social work ceus online classes, and your article just made me excited to start taking classes again. I just can’t wait to help out these children or families. Thanks for the post.

    Posted by Marietta | September 20, 2012, 3:55 pm

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