On Wednesday the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) marked 15 years of combating child abuse material on the internet – and to set the ball rolling on plans for future expansion into Europe and beyond.
The landmark anniversary was highlighted by the presence of large numbers of politicians, industry bodies and campaigners. There were speeches from leading lights in media regulation, including founder member Peter Dawe, and new CEO Susie Hargreaves.
Several speakers pointed out that the IWF owed its existence, initially, less to a desire to protect children, as to a need to prevent leaders of the nascent internet industry from going to prison.
Online Child Safety Consultant, John Carr OBE suggested that the real impetus behind the IWF lay with two individuals: Inspector French, Head of the Met’s Obscene Publications Squad, who wrote to ISP owners back in the early 90’s warning them that he didn’t know what crime they were technically guilty of – but if they didn’t put their house in order in respect of child abuse material, he’d find a charge to fit; and Government Minister Ian Taylor, who told the industry that if no such crime existed, he would soon have one on the statute books.
A prime mover in setting up the IWF in 1996 was Peter Dawe. Unable to attend Wednesday’s event, he sent a video greeting from the Far East, congratulating the IWF on its progress – and suggesting that the time had come for it to spread its wings and to start to deal with other issues, including copyright infringement.
This suggestion was roundly rejected by the IWF, and by their CEO Susie Hargreaves, who spoke of the need for the IWF to expand its role to take account of changing funding realities. At present the IWF is largely dependent on the EU for funding – and that will change after 2014.
Speaking privately after the event, Ms Hargreaves explained how the IWF was regularly cited as a world leader in the field of child protection. She told us: “we are looking not to export its model directly to other countries – but to consolidate our position as best practice example, and to provide advice, consultancy and support to other organisations across the world”.
Given that there are major overlaps between initiatives in various EU countries, and the EU is looking to rationalise its budget in this area, the scope for cross-border joint initiatives is growing.
In respect of the IWF, Ms Hargreaves said: “I do not think it appropriate to celebrate the existence of the IWF: in an ideal world it would not need to exist. Rather, we should be celebrating its success in combating child abuse”.
In its 15th year, the IWF can claim over 100 funding members – as opposed to five when it first began. It has assessed more than 370,000 url’s – and worked with industry to remove 87,000 url’s hosting images of child sexual abuse.
This is a potentially new and intersting direction for the IWF, which has reached the point where it is almost a victim of its own success.
The level of hosting of child abuse material within the UK (under 1%) is quite possibly the lowest of any country in the world: and the number of abuse url’s active at any one time is close to an all time low. The latter is somewhat belied by the fact that response times are a lot faster than they have been historically – so policing the internet for child abuse material and blocking it has become something of a cat and mouse game.
Many sites go up, are reported, and blocked within 24 hours – whereupon they simply resurface elsewhere. So whilst the surface picture is one of reducing concern, the IWF still has a mountain to climb.
All the same, the route preferred by many paedophiles – using VPN and the like to exchange material directly – is outwith the IWF remit – and dealt with by CEOP.
Within the UK there is persistent pressure for the IWF to spread its net wider, taking in terrorism (one of Jacqui Smith’s ideas) or even patrolling for copyright breaches (more recent). This they have steadfastly resisted as this would almost certainly impede their current wide legitimacy and also open the IWF to a lot more legal challenges.
Most people support their work in combatting abuse material: the jury is out on matters like copyright theft.
The EU funds initiatives: but the money is increasingly thinly spread, with changes to the current funding model due in 2014.
The IWF is widely recognised as a world leader in what it does, and while different countries will always prefer different models (some have judicial oversight, some are run by the police) the background expertise IS worth transferring.
Expansion to Europe and beyond therefore ticks several boxes.
There is also the minor but important point that different regimes have different number on their block list. When it comes to child abuse, the logic behind a pooled/common list looks to be inevitable as both more inclusive and as a means to reduce overhead internationally. Most countries have lists in the low hundreds – apart from Australia which, by virtue of including all manner of adult and even lawful material on its block lists appears to be closer to 10,000 url’s.
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