Good afternoon. Firstly, I want to thank Sir Peter and NSPCC for hosting and bringing us all together this afternoon. This is no doubt and no question one of the most complex and global challenges that government, law enforcement and our society as a whole are facing now.
I passionately believe that keeping children safe from abuse and harm is fundamentally one of the first responsibilities and duties of the state.
It’s also a duty upon all of us in terms of how we protect our children, children across the world, across society. And as we know the scale of the threat and the numbers are simply appalling at every single level.
We all have a duty, we all have a responsibility, to do more than to step up. This means actions by us all and actions by society. It ranges from government, to institutions, the arms of the state to the very organisations we are working with today, but also through private organisations – and I direct that at technology companies, and others, who can help be part of the solution here as well.
The scale of the threat
Before we discuss end-to-end encryption, I think it’s worth reflecting on the just the very prevalence and the impact of online child sexual abuse.
This is a crime, and this is a crime that is taking place at a staggering scale. And it’s not just in the UK, this is across the world.
Last year alone, this is this is throughout the year of the pandemic. US technology companies made 21.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse, equating to something like 65 million images.
Now that is a staggering sum, and all of us will be appalled, shocked, and sickened by that.
That is not all, because at any one time, three quarters of a million individuals across the globe are estimated to be looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online.
I think we should just pause there and think about that statement in its entirety. That’s an astonishing figure. It is an absolutely horrendous figure. There is so much more that we can be doing and should be doing to change that, but also to stop this.
We also have to remember that behind those appalling numbers there are victims who have suffered the most appalling, harrowing, horrendous and unimaginable abuse.
We see offenders on well-known social media sites and messaging platforms, ‘trading’ and I say trading in the most appalling sense, imagery depicting the sexual abuse of children, including toddlers and babies.
And another deeply concerning phenomenon that has emerged recently, child sexual abuse material has ‘gone viral’ – another new phrase that has been introduced. In one instance last year a video was share hundreds of thousands of times by offenders and members of the public acting out of misplaced outrage.
And increasingly, perpetrators are directly accessing children online, manipulating and coercing them into sending sexual imagery.
We all know the impact, the devastating impact on victims and all the organisations in this roundtable today will be familiar will some of the most harrowing testimonies, that have shattered people’s lives.
And I personally believe we owe it to all of them to ensure they have every possible support, and to do everything in our power to stop offenders in their tracks.
On that front, we are not sitting back, we are working collectively together to change this and bring about the outcome. We’ve already heard about so many cases. Protecting children is of course our collective priority and I am working with colleagues across government on this.
What we are doing
Protecting children and the most vulnerable from predatory abusers is a key priority for this government and I am working closely my Cabinet colleagues to deliver important change.
That includes ensuring that victims and survivors are at the heart of our collective response. In January, I published the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, the first of its kind, which will underpin our action, government action, to crack down on these crimes – wherever they take place.
And the strategy that underpins it details some of the key steps we are taking to strengthen powers and safeguards including, of course, stronger sentencing, tougher sentencing, so that serious violent and sexual offenders remain in prison for longer; but also so that we continue to invest in the UK’s world-leading Child Abuse Image Database because that supports law enforcement investigations; and it also ensures that victims and survivors can get access to high-quality support, regardless of where they live or where the abuse has occurred.
Government of course has also published proposals for the new ground-breaking Online Safety Bill, which will, importantly, hold technology companies to account, requiring them to assess the risks on their platform and put appropriate measures in place to protect users from harm. If they fail to do so, they should rightly face the consequences and huge penalties.
Of course, this is a global problem and UK activity and regulation is only part of the solution.
During my own recent discussions with my counterparts in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and we were absolutely united in calling upon the industry to ensure services are safe by design, and that companies themselves should do more and can do more to endorse and transparently implement the CSEA Voluntary Principles on child sexual abuse.
Tech companies and end-to-end encryption
And alongside this, right across government and law enforcement, we intend to absolutely drive that through, not just through our own policy, but with our own engagement directly with these companies.
But the scale and the evolving nature of this threat means that we cannot do this on our own.
Of course, we need the technology companies to play their own part, by taking safety seriously. This is an obvious statement, but they must do this, and they should do this.
But we have to push them ourselves as well, to ensure that they stand up and step up and put every single preventative measure in place. And that of course means that they have to assess what they do as a business, in terms of selling advertising, phones, online games, the type of harms that they themselves are directly and indirectly responsible for.
I mentioned that the tech industry made 21 million child sexual abuse referrals last year. In the UK, the National Crime Agency investigates these referrals, arresting offenders and safeguarding children at risk of abuse.
Last year, the NCA made over 4,500 arrests and they safeguarded around 6,000 children in the UK alone just based on those referrals.
Those numbers should not be taken lightly. If we were to multiply that across the globe, the scale of this crime speaks for itself.
These figures reflect some of the strong work technology companies are doing to support us in driving down this crime and driving this crime out. And, of course, it does underline the positive impact that these platforms can have – in particular Facebook’s services, which currently make up 94% of these global reports.
But while I am absolutely willing to recognise the strength of this and these important successes, I am equally clear that I will always speak out about designs on technology platforms that put safety at risk.
And sadly, at a time when we need to be taking more action, Facebook are pursuing end-to-end encryption plans that place the good work and progress already made, at jeopardy.
The offending is continuing and will continue, these images of children being abused just continue to proliferate – but the company intends to blind itself to this problem through end-to-end encryption which prevents all access to messaging content.
My view is that this is simply not acceptable. We cannot allow a situation where law enforcement’s ability to tackle abhorrent criminal acts and protect victims is severely hampered. Simply removing accounts from a platform is nowhere near enough.
I do urge Facebook to sharpen up their approach and their engagement and their way of working with us, to embed public safety and the protection and the safety of children embed in their design systems. And if they do not, the consequences for children and child safety will be profound.
The US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children has estimated that Facebook’s end-to-end encryption proposals would result in the loss of almost 12 million child abuse reports every year.
I want to make it clear that the government does support encryption – where of course companies can protect users’ privacy and there are many areas where this is important, but they must play their part in combatting the appalling abhorrent abuse that we are discussing.
The Governments of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and Japan agree with us, and they themselves have signed a statement to that effect, just in the last year.
We will continue to pursue engagement directly with companies at every single level – the importance of child safety speaks for itself. We believe it is possible to implement an end-to-end encrypted service in a way which is also consistent with public protection and child safety, and I know that so many of you here have been working on approaches to protect children online without compromising privacy or cyber security.
Before I finish, I want to thank all of you, because this has been a herculean effort across the globe, across agencies, across a partner organisations and across civil society as well, to look at how we can tackle the issue.
My views are very clear – I do believe we do have a moral duty and a responsibility to act – that applies to government, that applies to the work that we do here, that applies to the work I set up with operational partners, law enforcement and tech companies alike.
The safety and protection of our children depends on it –and I will continue to pursue this, and I will continue to work with all our partners, and all our partners in the roundtable today, because we owe this to children across the world, to make sure that we protect them.