Almost 90 per cent of online child sexual abuse content now hosted in Europe, warns IWF

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has warned that the “sheer proliferation” of child sexual abuse material now hosted in Europe is “extremely concerning”.

Feb 9, 2022
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

And it is urging the European Commission to bring forward long-awaited legislation to address this growing threat to children online.

In 2020, 86 per cent of all known child sexual abuse material discovered online by the IWF was hosted in Europe.

The IWF used Internet Safety Day on Tuesday (February 8) to call on the European Commission to “speed up” new legislation to protect children online as new data shows reports of imagery of child sexual abuse captured via a webcam has “exploded” following the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes as reports emerged of a new delay in publication of the Commission’s proposals, which are now not expected until March 30.

Experts at the IWF say new legislation is needed as soon as possible to protect children as analysts see more, and increasingly, younger children being groomed and abused online.

In 2021, the IWF took action against 182,281 URLs containing images or videos of ‘self-generated’ material – a 374 per cent increase on pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, the number of URLs removed was 38,424.

Child sexual abuse images generated in this way now account for nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of all the content the IWF works to remove online.

It says young girls are at particular risk. Ten years ago, they accounted for 60 per cent of the children seen in child sexual abuse images – that has now risen to 97 per cent.

Last year, the IWF removed 252,000 webpages containing child sexual abuse imagery from the internet.

It says each webpage can contain hundreds or thousands of individual images and most of these webpages are found on image hosting boards and cyberlockers hosted on servers located in Europe.

The IWF said ‘self-generated’ child sexual abuse imagery is created using webcams, very often in the child’s own room, and then shared online.

In some cases, children are groomed, deceived or extorted into producing and sharing a sexual image or video of themselves.

New data suggests a pronounced increase in this kind of material in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with fears more children spending time at home are falling victim to predators who are looking to exploit the situation.

In 2021, children aged 11 to 13 years old featured most prominently in these images, but the IWF has also removed 27,000 instances in the seven to ten age range in the past year – making self-generated imagery of children in this age group the fastest growing type of material seen by the IWF’s hotline.

The IWF, which was set up in 1996, is the UK-based charity that works globally to find and remove child sexual abuse imagery from the internet.

Emma Hardy, communications director at the IWF, said: “We have investigated more reports in the past year than the entire first 15 years we were in operation.

“Whilst we have got better at locating this content through our ability to proactively search and invest in technology, we remain extremely concerned about emerging harms, and have witnessed an explosion of self-generated images, live-streaming and the sheer proliferation of images hosted in Europe.

“We are supportive of the EU’s plans to bring forward new legislation to address this abhorrent crime and we hope that it includes a clearer strategy to prevent the creation of this imagery and improve the situation with Europe’s hosting issues.

“This Safer Internet Day we are encouraging the European Commission to bring forward these proposals as soon as possible and we stand ready to assist them in taking the fight to those who seek to exploit children.”

Latest figures from the Police Service of Northern Ireland showed reports of online child sexual abuse crimes had soared by more than 80 per cent in the past three years (see https://www.policeprofessional.com/news/psni-reports-huge-rise-in-online-child-sexual-abuse-crimes/).

And Europol’s recent serious organised threat assessment also highlighted the growing problem regarding the increase of child sexual abuse material online.

It stated: “There has been a continuous increase in activities related to the sexual abuse of children over recent years. Child sexual exploitation targets the most vulnerable in our society.”

The threat assessment identified grooming and live-streaming as key threat issues that need to be addressed.

The report also warns that it remains a crime that is highly under-reported and many victims remain unidentified.

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