Government must invest in the UK Safer Internet Centre at this week’s spending review if it is to become a global leader in online safety

23 Nov 2020 Andy Robinson

This week is a crucial week in the online safety of children up and down the country. The online safety and welfare of the nation’s six million children is at stake and perhaps, crucially, so too is the Government’s claims of being a world leader in online safety.

Over the past year, we have seen the huge benefits the internet has to offer society. We have seen just how easy it has been to connect anywhere, anytime, to work from home and it has kept many businesses, schools and organisations functioning. Children too have been entertained, able to stay connected to school and friends throughout the pandemic.

However, we have also seen the darker side of the internet and children and young people are perhaps most at risk from the unintended consequences of spending increasing amounts of time online as we battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the past eight months we have seen huge rises in public reports across the UK Safer Internet Centre’s hotlines and helplines. September was the busiest month ever for the Internet Watch Foundation’s hotline receiving over 15,000 reports of suspected child sexual abuse imagery. The Revenge Porn Helpline operated by SWGfL had seen a doubling in its reports just halfway through this year, compared with the number of reports they received in the whole of 2019 and have taken action on over 85,000 individual images. Reports of harmful content continue to grow since SWGfL launched the platform last year and in April it was revealed the true extent of offending related to online child sexual abuse. The National Crime Agency revealing that as many as 300,000 people posed a threat to children either offline or online. The IWF revealed that in one month a staggering 8.8 million attempts had been made to access child sexual abuse.

Combine this with frightening information revealed by the UK Safer Internet Centre in October, that there were huge gaps and variation in online safety being delivered in schools and the picture becomes more disturbing. Following the release of self-assessment data across 21 online safety measurements in 14,000 schools, was a rallying cry from the sector for more support in dealing with these important issues.

If the Government is serious about becoming a world leader in online safety, we believe that it is vital that they directly fund the work and activities of the UK Safer Internet Centre in this week’s comprehensive spending review.

For the past ten years, the UK Safer Internet Centre has received 50% of its funding from the European Union. This is due to end in December and at present there have been no assurances about our future.

Over the past decade, the Centre has proved just how effective it has been at tackling online harms. These are complex, challenging issues which cannot be tackled by technological solutions alone, they require a multi-faceted and disciplined approach from those who know what is technically possible, has the ability to convene and influence industry, can respond and innovate to new online harms and are best placed to effectively educate those who are at risk and those who care for them.

Over the past decade, the UK Safer Internet Centre has significantly grown its reach and influence. We are responsible for delivering Safer Internet Day in the UK which last year reached 49% of children, 26% of parents and had over 2,000 businesses participating supporting the event. We have trained over 21,000 professionals working with the nation’s six million children and have removed millions of child sexual abuse images from the internet. All this work is at risk, if the Government does not step in and fund the vital activities of the Centre.

The importance of our role

And do not take just our word for it. Many other people think it too. Twenty-five leaders from across academia, law enforcement, tech, education, and the wider online safety sector have written directly to the Chancellor in the last month stressing the importance of our role in the UK’s online safety landscape.

Numerous questions have been raised in Parliament in the last year. From Baroness Walmsley to Carolyn Harris, Stephen Timms, Lord Strasburger and Lord Taylor of Warwick. All of whom have raised, either through written or oral questions, concerns about what will happen if this funding were to disappear.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is also concerned. In the Chamber on 12 November he announced that “funding would be maintained” following a question from Chris Elmore MP. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, also confirmed during questioning from Damian Hinds MP at the DCMS Select Committee, “that it was the default assumption that those who had received funding previously (from the EU) would continue to do so subject to any announcements in the CSR.”

Whilst these comments are of course welcome, there is yet, no official confirmation from Government – further to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s comments – that this funding will be maintained. Further pressure from MPs and Peers came last week, when 33 parliamentarians signed an open letter calling on the Government to ensure this funding would be in place.

With no news on the Government’s long anticipated Online Harms White Paper response, this week’s Comprehensive Spending Review represents the ideal opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that they are serious about making the UK the safest place to be online.

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