Children will be put at risk if Facebook’s plans to encrypt its services go ahead, according to the NSPCC.
Chief Executive Peter Wanless has warned that the social media giant is putting privacy and secrecy before accountability.
Facebook has announced it will soon be using end-to-end encryption on its 1.3 billion-user Messenger service, meaning not even they will be able to see the content of messages.
The messenger service is taking the lead in Facebook’s new privacy-focused approach, and has been given end-to-end encryption for the first time ever, meaning messages sent on the platform can’t be accessed by anyone other than the sender and the receiver.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp also encrypts messages in the same way.
Mr Wanless has campaigned for social media regulation for the last two years and warned that end-to-end encryption on Facebook messenger is a risk to keeping children safe online.
Mr Wanless has issued a stark warning that the introduction of the encryption would lead to more children being groomed and sexually abused.
He backed plans to make named directors legally and personally liable for what happened on their platforms so they could be prosecuted for breaches of child safety.
He told The Telegraph: “It betrays very obviously their misplaced priorities.”
Startling new figures reveal that more than 1,500 children as young as 12 called Childline last year as potential victims of online grooming or sexual abuse – a huge 19 per cent increase on 2017.
The NSPCC now wants a new statutory duty of care on social media firms to better protect children from online harms.
Facebook’s decision to implement encryption comes as the social media company pledged to begin a “new chapter” in its history, as it revealed it will become more focused on privacy at its developer conference in April.
However, Mr Wanless maintained that such encryption was a “risk and a backward step” in keeping children safe online.
He said: “It places privacy and secrecy ahead of accountability and transparency. It’s really disappointing that the reaction to the NSPCC’s and young people’s call for a safer internet is to make it a lot more secret and more dangerous for them.
“What I would say to Mark Zuckerberg is you have a duty of care and a responsibility to the people who are using your services, very many of whom are children and young people.”
He went on: “These companies make vast sums of money every year and the penalties need to be proportionate. Named directors need to be liable for their actions and inactions.”
The charity also wants tough sanctions for those that fail in their duty of care – including steep fines for tech firms of up to £20 million, bans for boardroom directors, shaming tactics and a new criminal offence.
He warned new threats were emerging, from livestreaming where NSPCC research discovered more than one in 20 primary school children using it said they had been asked to undress on it, to the way lack of regulation of the open web was leading abusers onto the dark web.
Of the 1,507 calls to the NSPCC helpline in 2018/19 about online sexual abuse, a third suspected someone was developing a relationship for the purpose of sexual exploitation or grooming.
In April, the Government published its white paper on online harms which threatens tech giants with large fines and criminal liability of bosses.
The white paper, published jointly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, proposes strict new rules be introduced that require firms to take responsibility for their users and their safety, as well as the content that appears on their services.
Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, told the Financial Times that the company had ‘made mistakes but has taken responsibility and is addressing them‘.