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The Government child abuse inquiry must apply proper scrutiny to internet behemoths

FILE - In this April 11, 2018, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. Zuckerberg is calling for more outside regulation in several areas in which the social media site has run into problems over the past few years: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) 
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies in Washington about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election Credit: Andrew Harnik /Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse set up five years by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary is holding its second session of substantive hearings. The first in January 2018 considered the response of law enforcement agencies to abuse facilitated by the internet. The latest will examine whether the internet companies themselves have responded adequately to the exploitation of social media by those who prey on children.

However, what was supposed to be a transparent process designed to learn lessons and expose cover-ups has become shrouded in secrecy. Facebook, Google, Apple, BT and Microsoft are being allowed to give evidence in camera because of the “sensitive nature” of the evidence. But it is not apparent whether it is to protect the victims or the corporate secrets of the companies.

If there is to be an inquiry of this sort it is ridiculous to hold sessions behind closed doors. While the identities of victims should be covered by restriction orders, why should the internet behemoths not explain themselves in public, as newspapers were required to do in the Leveson inquiry? As one MP asked: have they got something to hide?

On Monday, the counsel representing victims of online abuse told the inquiry “the largest tech firms are failing” to prevent children at risk.

“Is it really beyond the wealth and wit of these technology companies to prevent and detect child sexual abuse on their platforms?” he asked. “Or is there something incompatible with their commercial objectives... that makes them bridle at the necessary steps to curb this modern scourge?” It is a good question; and it should be answered in public.