IWF supports calls to speed up online harms legislation

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has joined the NSPCC in calling for the Government to “speed up the timetable” on world-leading online harms legislation.

Jun 1, 2020
By Paul Jacques

The NSPCC wants Prime Minister Boris Johnson to publicly commit to delivering an Online Harms Bill within 18 months.

The Bill would set out a ‘duty of care’ on technology firms to make their sites safer for children. The NSPCC is urging the Government to publish a roadmap that sets out the timescales for it to go through Parliament as a matter of urgency.

In February, the Government announced it was “minded” to give Ofcom new regulatory powers to protect the public from online harms.

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF – the UK charity responsible for finding and removing online child sexual abuse material – said it would work with all its partners to help protect children, but that action must be taken soon.

“The length of time it is taking is leading to uncertainty for us all, which stalls progress,” she said.

“We support calls for the Government to speed up the timetable for the introduction of the online harms legislation.

“We understand the current Covid-19 crisis was unforeseen and has impacted on the timetable for legislation, but a full response to the White Paper consultation [on online harms] is needed as soon as possible, especially with more children spending time online at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The speed with which we intervene will make a difference to keeping them safe. We look forward to continuing to work with the Government as the legislation develops in order that the framework builds on current best practice to get the right outcomes for children.”

In 2019, the IWF removed millions of images and videos of child sexual abuse having processed a record 260,426 reports.

Of these reports, 132,676 contained images and/or videos of children being sexually abused. Every report could contain anything from one to thousands of images of videos of this abuse. The IWF says this equates to millions of images and videos.

The NSPCC says more than 10,000 online grooming crimes have been recorded by police under a new law that made it illegal for adults to send sexual messages to children.

“Figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests show that police in England and Wales have recorded 10,119 offences of sexual communication with a child in the two and a half years since the law came into force, following our Flaw in the Law campaign,” it said.

The data revealed:

  • The number of offences is accelerating, with 23 per cent taking place in the six months up to October last year;
  • Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) were used in 55 per cent of cases, from April 2017 to October 2019, in which police recorded information about how a child was groomed; and
  • There were over 3,200 instances of Facebook-owned apps being used, of which half involved Instagram. Snapchat was used more than 1,060 times.

“We are warning there could be a sharper increase this year due to the unique threats caused by coronavirus and years of industry failure to design basic child protection into platforms,” said the NSPCC.

“In February, then Digital Minister Matt Warman promised to publish an Online Harms Bill following proposals set out in a White Paper. These proposals set out independent regulation of social networks with potential criminal sanctions if tech directors fail to keep children safe on their platforms.

“However, frustration is growing at delays to the legislation not now expected until the end of the year and concerns we might not see a regulator until 2023.”

The IWF says more than eight million attempts to access child sexual abuse material online during the coronavirus lockdown have been made in the UK, with experts warning the figure could be even higher.

The IWF – with the help of its industry partners – has successfully blocked and filtered at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse during a one-month period while the UK was locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Crime Agency believes there are a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical “contact” abuse or online.

However, an independent study found there has been “significant growth” within the UK’s safety technology sector in online safety innovation, with the IWF “leading the fight” to “radically reduce” the amount of child sexual abuse material on the internet

The study, Safer technology, safer users: The UK as a world leader in Safety Tech, says the number of dedicated online safety firms has doubled in the past five years.

This, the report says, is an important step in government plans to make UK the safest place in the world to be online.

It adds that organisations like the IWF are ”leading the fight” against online criminals.

According to the report: “The IWF is a unique organisation in the fight against illegal content online, as it works closely with government, industry, internet companies, social media and law enforcement to actively trace, locate, and remove content.”

“The IWF have helped to radically reduce the volume of child sexual abuse content hosted in the UK, and continues to lead the fight.”

The report adds: “Through working alongside a range of organisations responsible for network infrastructure, including ISPs, domains, filterers, hosting, search engines, social media, gaming and mobile operators, the IWF has helped to radically reduce the volume of child sexual abuse content hosted in the UK, and continues to lead the fight.”

When the IWF was set up in 1996, the UK hosted 18 per cent of all known child sexual abuse material on the internet. Today that has been pushed down to less than half a per cent, thanks in part to the work of IWF analysts in finding and removing content quickly.

Ms Hargreaves said: “The UK really is leading the way in this field, and this report is testament to the rock-solid resolve of industry, government, and law enforcement to make the internet a safer place.

“Criminals must have nowhere to hide, and everyone must do their part to protect the victims of these crimes and make sure the internet is a safe and welcoming place for all.

“Under our watch, UK hosting of child sexual abuse material has been virtually wiped out. But we need, as a country, to face up to the fact there are people in the UK who are watching and sharing this material.

“We can all do our bit to fight against the spread of this content, and we urge people to report videos or images of children suffering sexual abuse to us so we can have them removed for good.”

Minister for Digital and Culture, Caroline Dinenage, added: “We are all spending more time online during the pandemic and this new report shows the value the safety tech sector could add as we look to power growth out of it.

“Its innovative products, many of which are developed in towns and cities across the country, are being used globally to help companies make their online platforms safer.

“The Government is leading the world developing online harms laws and it’s great to see our brilliant British tech industry is part of the solution.”

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