The Internet Watch Foundation is a charity that has been working to remove child abuse images from the internet since 1996. People worried about certain images can report them via the IWF hotline, so they can be investigated, removed and if appropriate, reported to the authorities for further criminal investigation.
Over the past 6 months there have been a number of changes which have raised the profile of the IWF and I’ve been watching with interest.
ISPs and the IWF
The Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection (April 2012) provides useful background into the increasing importance of the IWF and their relationship with ISPs. It found that six companies – BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Sky, Everything Everywhere and O2 – controlled over 90% of the market. Initially their role was “transmission only” whereby they provided unlimited web content and the consumer was responsible for blocking or restricting access to inappropriate content.
But when the police warned the UK ISPs that some indecent content contravened the Protection of Children Act 1978, they had to do something. They needed to combat the hosting of such content in the UK, whilst ensuring they wouldn’t be held criminally liable for providing access to the content.
So in association with other bodies, UK ISPs acted collectively by forming the IWF to restrict and monitor consumer access to child abuse imagery. This restriction and monitoring is seen in the telecoms industry as necessary and IWF is highly regarded. Announcements of new members are regular – in February 2014 JT joined the IWF, taking the figure to 116 in total.
IWF and Social Media
It is not just ISPs which are members of IWF. Increasingly social media companies such as Twitter, Badoo, Facebook, are joining. Even the notorious question and answer social network Ask.fm joined IWF in an effort to improve their online safety record.
At the time of the parliamentary enquiry, the Telegraph reported that Naomi Gummer, public policy analyst at Google, said it was a “myth” that laws can prevent children from viewing explicit material. She went on; ‘the pace of technological development would render legislation a “blunt instrument”‘.
This attitude, as well as the comparatively small donations given to IWF by Google (£20,000), Facebook (£10,000) and Bing (£20,000) at that time created much ill feeling. Search engines protested that they were continuously working on algorithms and filtering technology to make the internet a safer place.
June 2013 saw a massive volte face from various internet companies. Two major announcements raised the profile of the IWF immeasurably. The first was a massive injection of cash with Google donating £1m over four years, and BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media committing an additional £1m collectively over the next four years. The second development was the more proactive approach that the charity would be taking from April 2014. Rather than waiting for people to ring the hotline, they would be actively searching for child abuse images.
During a November 2013 summit, the Prime Minister met with search engines, ISPs, the National Crime Agency, IWF and the NSPCC to discuss how to rid the internet of child abuse by working together. The aims are laudable but how realistic it all is, only time will tell. Already MPs have said significant technical issues would need to be overcome, and still not enough is being done.
These announcements regarding large private cash donations and the increasingly active role of the IWF coincide with a change in the way relevant government agencies are being administered.
Budgets are being cut all the time; indeed the highly regarded Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s budget has been frozen since 2010. Yet in the period 2012/2013 alone 790 children were subject to safeguarding or protection as a result of CEOP activity. In October 2010, the head of CEOP resigned over fears that the centre would lose its independence after being absorbed into the NCA. This move was confirmed at the 2013 Summit. The release announced, “By bringing CEOP into the NCA this year, we are maximising our investigative capabilities and the specialist support, for example cyber expertise, which is available to all our operations.”
I acknowledge the excellent intentions of the IWF. They are making all the right noises regarding transparency, accountability and corporate governance. However I question whether it is right for the government to cut resources to official investigatory channels, whilst relying on the industry to fund the policing of the internet. Surely such a role should be carried out by a statutory body created by parliament, representing all interested parties and be independently funded. It’s an ideological minefield.
The IWF provides a valuable service and its role in ensuring the internet is safe is assured. As technology becomes more sophisticated they need all the help they can get to remain one step ahead of the people who upload illegal content. However the balance between public bodies and private companies, the balance between protection and transparency, and indeed the balance between press hysteria and public awareness must be maintained at all times.
Clare Brown is Library and Information Manager at Collyer Bristow. Further information about Collyer Bristow’s Cyber Investigation Unit can be found here.