The internet has, for too long, proved to be a vehicle for perpetrators of online grooming and child sexual exploitation to operate covertly – often remaining undetected.

We therefore welcome the government’s recent release of an Online Harms White Paper – featuring plans for new regulations which would make online providers more accountable for harmful content online.

The proposals include a new regulatory framework, statutory code of practice and duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users online and to tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.

The regulations will apply to all internet companies, search engines, social networks, forums, messaging services and any website allowing “users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other”.

The White Paper acknowledges that harmful content and activity online can be particularly damaging for children in terms of the impact that can have on mental health and wellbeing.

Safe & Sound works with many young people who have been groomed and sexually exploited online, most often via social media networks or apps.

In many of our online cases, young people have been approached on a social media network by a stranger pretending to be someone they’re not. They are befriended over time and then frequently coerced into sharing inappropriate images of themselves which are often used to blackmail a young person with. The loss of control and the fear about who will see these images has a huge impact on a child or young person – even without or before any physical contact.

We highlight below some of the suggestions made in the paper which we feel are particularly relevant when tackling online grooming, child sexual abuse imagery and child sexual exploitation:

  • Companies will need to provide: additional protection for children; clear, accessible and relevant terms and conditions; and ensure users are aware of online risks and where to go for help and support.
  • Companies will be required to demonstrate the steps they are taking to actively stop the dissemination of content such as child sexual abuse imagery and other illegal behaviours.
  • The regulator will likely be tasked with promoting the skills and awareness needed to help individuals stay safe online.
  • The regulator will require transparency reports from companies outlining the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and what counter measures they are taking to address these. These reports will be published online by the regulator, so that users and parents can make informed decisions about internet use.
  • Companies will be expected to have effective and easy-to-access user complaints functions, which will be overseen by the regulator.
  • Companies will need to respond to users’ complaints within an appropriate timeframe and to take action consistent with the expectations set out in the regulatory framework.
  • Companies who do not comply with regulations will be proportionately fined and could be taken offline and blocked within the UK, with senior executives even facing prosecution.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport the Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP, said: “The regulator will also take account of the need to promote innovation and freedom of speech.

“It will adopt a risk-based approach, prioritising action where there is the greatest evidence of threat or harm to individuals or to wider society.”

The White Paper is a positive step forwards in holding some of the large internet companies to account for illegal and harmful content on their platforms and we feel this is long overdue.

Although there are still concerns by many around censorship and privacy issues, which we also acknowledge, the internet currently poses real risks and dangers for all children and young people using it and very little has been done up until now to address these issues.

Child sexual exploitation is everyone’s business. We advocate that the new regulations should include clear ways that internet companies can work more closely with the police, social services, schools and organisations like ours to share information.

We regard this as being an important step towards bringing perpetrators of online grooming and child sexual exploitation to justice and disrupting the ways and means for perpetrators to seek out, target and groom young people in the first place.

The government is currently inviting the public to take part in an open consultation about the new regulatory framework. You can complete this as an individual or on behalf of your organisation here.

It will be another couple of years before the White Paper is converted into law, so our hope is that the changes suggested now will continued to be looked at in line with the ever-changing nature of the internet to ensure laws and regulations remain relevant.