Ethical Tensions of Online Child Protection

Catherine Flick and Penny Duquenoy


Isis is a project with the aim of developing a set of ethical monitoring tools and frameworks to assist law enforcement agencies in policing Internet chat and file-sharing networks in order to protect children from abuse, particularly that of paedophile activity. The tools aim to automatically detect and identify files that depict child abuse, and the communities that distribute and collect these, and to also allow for identification of paedophile “grooming” behaviour in internet chat logs. The latter tool is planned for use on previously captured data by law enforcement (using official channels that are already in place for such data collection) and aimed at simplifying and reducing the workload for tasks currently performed manually by law enforcement agents. It will not be deployed “in the wild”.

With such a sensitive issue as child sexual abuse, it is particularly important for the designers and developers involved to be aware of their responsibilities to society. Thus it is important that the Isis project is developed in a socially accountable and ethical way, with definite boundaries on use, ethical development procedures, stakeholder input, and ethical review. This paper forms part of the ethical assessment of the Isis project.

The Isis project has been presented to several focus group workshops and ethics interest groups for reflection and input on the outcomes and processes of the project from an ethical perspective. It might be assumed that such groups would applaud a project aimed at the protection of children, reducing exposure of law enforcement agents to potentially troubling material, and more efficient processing of data in order for timely interventions. It has instead been met with varying degrees of rejection. In many of these groups, the question of whether the Isis project is needed at all was brought up, citing the severely problematic ethical side effects or dual uses of the technology behind Isis as compelling arguments for such technological developments to not be developed, and asking whether the problem of online child abuse was enough to warrant such a technological response. In this paper, we seek to address this question from an impartial standpoint: is there a significant problem with online child abuse? If so, what sorts of ethical responses are possible?

With the growth of the Internet in recent years has come a shift in the way society operates. Increasing amounts of our time is spent online, and we are now at the point where current generations of children have not known life “without the Internet”. With this growth and increasing ubiquity of the Internet has come a massive increase in the use of social networking and other social interaction tools, such as chat and file-sharing. The Internet has also enabled people with similar interests to connect with each other easily, share information, and chat about their particular interests, where in the physical world it might be difficult to arrange similar sorts of meetings. Although these sorts of groups are, in the majority, innocuous, social networking sites, chat channels, and file sharing networks have also become domains in which child sex offenders can operate in relative anonymity, sharing images of child sexual abuse, or grooming and exploiting children. Historically, child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon. In more recent times, yet before the Internet was in popular use, child sexual abuse images and movies (often termed “child pornography”) were available, although it required a large effort to obtain and keep such material (finding a distributor, physical storage, etc.) (Taylor & Quayle, 2003). Thus it was mostly left to those who already had a significant sexual interest in children. However, with the increase in computer use, and the ability for people with diverse interests to easily share them online, crimes involving sexual exploitation of children have also increased. Online resources and tools allow for “predatory offenders to electronically creep into the bedrooms of our nation’s youth, where they engage in sexually explicit “chat”, “cybervoyerism”, and “cyberexhibitionism”” (Bourke & Hernandez, 2009).

Given the sensitive nature of this topic, there are large gaps in our knowledge when it comes to the perpetrators and victims of these sorts of crimes (Quayle, 2009). Amidst claims of moral panics, hysteria and media overreaction, there is an all-too-real problem, but this is often lost in the response. It is even, in some ways, somewhat unfashionable to be working for stronger child protection, since “in the present climate, few people would openly acknowledge this”, but “whilst the numbers involved are unknown, sexual interest in children is much more widespread than we might imagine” (Taylor & Quayle, 2003, p. 198).

In this paper, we will establish the background to the questions being asked by looking at the sensitive issues of child pornography and paedophile grooming behaviour, as researched by academics working in the field, to determine whether there is a problem that needs a response. This step allows us to identify the issues from an academic research perspective and to distinguish them from any sort of media reports or “moral panic”. We will then look at the implications of these findings for the Isis project, and discuss its place within such a socially and politically volatile and emotive area.


Bourke, M. L., & Hernandez, A. E. (2009). The ‘Butner Study’ Redux: A Report of the Incidence of Hands-on Child Victimization by Child Pornography Offenders. J Fam Viol , 24, 183-191.

Quayle, E. (2009). Abuse images of children: identifying gaps in our knowledge. G8 Symposium: Examining the relationship between online and offline offenses and preventing the sexual exploitation of children. UNC Chapel Hill.

Taylor, M., & Quayle, E. (2003). Child Pornography: An Internet Crime. New York: Routledge.