Home Secretary Sajid Javid has warned he will “not be afraid to take action” against tech giants if they do not help to tackle child sexual abuse online.
Mr Javid said he was “demanding” companies take “more measures” – or face new legislation.
He added that some sites were refusing to take online abuse seriously – and highlighted live-streaming of child abuse as a growing problem.
Mr Javid said it was his “personal mission” to tackle online child abuse.
Referrals of child abuse images to the National Crime Agency (NCA) have surged by 700% in the last five years, according to new figures.
Furthermore, the images are getting more graphic, the Home Office said, with abuse of babies and children under 10 becoming more frequently documented.
The Home Office warned that live-streaming of abuse was also on the rise, enabled by faster internet speeds, smartphone technology and the growing ease of money transfers across borders.
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In his speech, Mr Javid said: “One officer I met during a visit to the NCA’s Child Exploitation Online Protection Command, who had previously worked in counter-terrorism for over 20 years, told me how in all his years of working he’s never been so shocked by the scale of the threat or the determination of the offenders as he is in his current job.”
He went on: “The threat has evolved a lot more quickly than the industry’s response and industry has just not kept up.
“So let me say this – I’m not just asking for change, I am demanding it and the people are demanding it too – and if the web giants do not take more measures to remove this type of content from their platforms, I will not be afraid to take action.”
Figures indicate that police in England and Wales recorded about 23 child sexual offences involving the internet every day in 2017/18 – up from about 15 a day in the previous 12 months.
The scale of the offending has led to demands for internet giants to take more action to stop access to sexual abuse images and videos.
Technology companies doing more to remove indecent images from circulation would be a “monumental landmark” in child protection, the NCA said.
There have also been calls for tougher sentences for people who download indecent images of children.
The agency added that in one week of action in July, 131 arrests were made, including teachers, a children’s entertainer and a former police officer. Only 13 of those arrested were registered sex offenders, 19 others held positions of trust.
In his speech, Mr Javid made a commitment to prioritise efforts to crack down on online child sex abuse, building on an existing project that trawls the web to identify pages with suspected abuse content.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which assesses and removes online child abuse material, said it fully supported Mr Javid in his warning.
Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive, said it “recognises the evolving threat of child sexual abuse online and the problems highlighted by the home secretary, in particular live streaming, encryption and grooming”.
She added: “Sadly, our most recent annual report showed that the severity of the images we identified were up and it appeared that offenders were becoming more sophisticated in their crime.”
Ms Hargreaves added that the UK “remains one of the most hostile places in the world to host this disturbing material”.
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, also welcomed Mr Javid’s commitment.
He said: “The government must now deliver its promise to make the UK the safest place to be online by forcing online companies to ensure effective safeguards are in place to help better protect children.
“Any delay to acting now could put a generation of children in danger online.”
How to report child sex exploitation
If you’re worried that a child or young person is at risk or is being abused you can contact the children’s social care team at their local council. You can choose not to give your details.
You can report it online to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (Ceop).
Or you can call the NSPCC 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 5000 for expert advice and support.
If a child is at immediate risk call 999, or call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed.
Children and young people can call Childline free on 0800 1111 where trained counsellors are available 24 hours a day, every day.