As sex offenders get ever more technologically advanced, we must keep one step ahead

No one should be able to search for and find images of child abuse online. It’s that simple. This isn’t about censorship; this is saying to people that they cannot use search engines to attempt to look for something clearly sickening and illegal. On Monday, Google and Microsoft took a major step forward in making a safer Internet a reality: 100,000 terms that could be used when someone is searching for child abuse images will no longer lead people to gateway websites that link to this content, and in some cases will now return an on-screen warning to the user.

The government, the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (CEOP) and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) have worked together to get us here, and the Internet industry has shown great integrity. But while we at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) welcome the vast amount of work and expertise that has gone into finding technical solutions to rid the web of this poison, we will only ever measure the success of these efforts in one way: results. That means reductions in people looking at these images and in the number of children who are abused.

We must never forget that behind every one of these images and videos is a real little boy or girl who has been abused. The term “child porn” obscures this reality and should be deleted from our vocabulary. Calling the abuse of children “porn” aligns it as just another form of human sexual taste. Let’s call this material “child abuse images” and have no more shades of grey about it.

Some people may ask why it’s so important to stop the circulation of and access to these images online? Shouldn’t more resources be put into stopping the abuse of children in the first place?

Well, this isn’t an either/or situation. All of these images portray crime scenes and we know that sex offenders often begin their journey into depravity by casually searching for images of young children in increasingly sexualised poses.

I am not naive about the scale of the challenge. I know that Monday’s announcement on search terms won’t stop determined sex offenders, but what it will do is help stop the curious from heading down a very dangerous path.

We know that the worst child abuse is shared in the dark corners of the Internet, on peer-to-peer file-sharing websites, and these are the target of organisations such as CEOP and the IWF. And we know the industry is helping with its vast expertise in this area too.

Of course every effort must be made to keep children safe from abuse, to teach them about it, as well as identifying sex offenders as soon as possible and get them treatment to prevent them posing a danger to children.

There is no one silver bullet, but that shouldn’t detract from the significance of this commitment from the industry to make this an ongoing programme of work with monitoring, evaluation and transparency at its heart.

If more abusers are identified we must then see them prosecuted and jailed. It’s very concerning that we have record numbers of people reporting sex crimes yet cases being sent for prosecution by the police are falling.

The government must keep child abuse images at the top of the political agenda and take a strong stance, including providing sufficient police resources to track down and bring offenders to justice.

As sex offenders get ever more technologically advanced we must keep one step ahead. This is the key child protection issue of a generation — we cannot fail. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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