Facebook apps account for more than half of online child sexual grooming offences, police figures show, as the social media giant pressed ahead with “cavalier” introduction of end-to-end encryption of messages.
Police figures, obtained by the NSPCC, showed there have been more than 10,000 offences of grooming children online for sex since a new law on sexual communication was introduced in 2017.
The data, provided under Freedom of Information laws, showed online grooming of children has increased by 44 per cent in the past six months, compared with the first six months.
Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of all 10,000 offences were committed in the past six months.
Facebook-owned apps including Instagram and WhatsApp accounted for 55 per cent of all 5,784 offences where a platform was identified by police. Instagram had the most with 28 per cent to Facebook’s 23 per cent. Snapchat stood at 25 per cent.
It follows Wednesday’s decision by Facebook to press ahead with end-to-end encryption of messages on all its platforms despite a revolt by shareholders who fear it will turn it into a haven for paedophiles, terrorists and criminals who will be able to hide their communications.
In an online article for The Daily Telegraph, Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said Facebook’s decision and the data on grooming demonstrated why there should be no delay in introducing a duty of care law to protect children from online harms.
“If we needed a further reminder of industry indifference to child safety, just this week Facebook took another step closer to rolling out end-to-end encryption of its messaging services,” said Mr Wanless.
“This despite a rebellion from shareholders and warnings from child protection organisations and experts across the globe that encryption without guaranteed safeguards will engineer away the ability to prevent grooming and child abuse images being shared.
“Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook’s founder] himself admitted that end-to-end encryption would allow bad people to do bad things on his sites. On Instagram, for example, which so many of our children enjoy.
“If his cavalier disregard for preventing child abuse and harmful content tells us anything, it’s that we can’t leave our children’s safety in the hands of Silicon Valley.
“That’s why I’m calling on the Prime Minister today to commit to having an Online Harms Bill on the statute book within 18 months.”
He revealed that at last week’s Number Ten hidden harms summit, he confronted the Prime Minister with the case of 12-year-old Freya who was subject to online abuse through sexual messages and videos and urged him to “get on” with the duty of care bill.
“I shared the words of her mother with the Prime Minister: ‘Our children should be safe in their bedrooms, but they’re not. They should be safe from messages from strangers if their accounts are on private, but they’re not,’” said Mr Wanless.
Facebook’s plans for extending encryption are expected to be discussed next month by the “Five Eyes” intelligence network of nations’ including the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said: “We have been very clear in our concerns that Facebook’s end-to-end encryption plans will harm its and law enforcement’s ability to tackle terrorism and child abuse on their platforms.
“Mark Zuckerberg should listen to his shareholders and launch an immediate review into the increased risk of child sexual exploitation created by these proposals.”
The NSPCC said it feared there could be a sharper increase this year due to the “perfect storm” caused by vulnerable children using their computers more during coronavirus lockdown “years of industry failure to design basic child protection into platforms.”
Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), warned that uncertainty of the timing of the legislation was “stalling progress” in the fight against online harms.
“We understand the current Covid-19 crisis was unforeseen and has impacted on the timetable for legislation, but a full response to the White Paper consultation is needed as soon as possible, especially with more children spending time online at home during the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
A spokesman for Facebook and Instagram said: “There is no place for grooming or child exploitation on our platforms and we use technology to proactively find and quickly remove it.
“We have a content and security team of over 35,000 people investigating reports from our community and working to keep our platforms safe.
“Our teams also work closely with child protection experts and law enforcement, reporting content directly to specialists such as CEOP and NCMEC”
The spokesman added: “The rollout of end-to-end encryption is a long-term project and we are committed to building strong safety measures into our plans. We will continue to work with industry experts and law enforcement to combat criminal activity across all our platforms.”