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More than 10,000 online grooming cases reported in the past two years

29 May, 2020

Police in England and Wales recorded more than 10,000 cases of online grooming in the two years following the introduction of a law that banned all sexual communication with young people under 18, new data has revealed.

The means of communication were only recorded in 5,784 of the reported cases, and out of these, 55 per cent involved Facebook-owned platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.

This comes at a critical crossroads for Facebook as the tech company plans to put in place end-to-end encryption on all of its messaging services, making it much harder for law enforcement to track down child sex offenders on its platforms.

As staggering as the number may seem, it should be noted that almost half of the reported cases do not specify on which platform the grooming happened – leading to a potentially blurred picture of the scale of the problem on Facebook-owned services.

The data was obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) which was instrumental in getting section 15A of the Sexual Offences Act ratified in 2017.

Now, the charity is calling on prime minister Boris Johnson to introduce a new Online Harms Bill within the next year and a half to ensure that tech companies have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect children from harm.

“Child abuse is an inconvenient truth for tech bosses who have failed to make their sites safe and enabled offenders to use them as a playground in which to groom our kids,” said the NSPCC’s chief executive Peter Wanless.

“Now is the time to get regulation done and create a watchdog with the teeth to hold tech directors criminally accountable if their platforms allow children to come to serious but avoidable harm.”

Online grooming is also accelerating according to the new figures, with 23 per cent of all cases taking place in the six months up to October last year.

An Online Harms Bill was promised in February by then digital minister Matt Warman, which would include several elements outlined in the government’s Online Harms White Paper – including a regulatory body for the internet, a Duty of Care and greater transparency from tech companies.

Image: Daniel Jędzura / Adobe Stock