The Internet Watch Foundation is coming of age. Over the last few years it has transformed from an organisation apparently focused on takedown figures and URL hit rates into something altogether more strategic and sophisticated, in line with the nature and scale of the problem it sees itself as dealing with.
The headline figures from today’s IWF Annual Report 2009 (pdf) tell their own story: 38,173 reports of online content that was potentially criminal in nature. Further action taken in respect of 8,844 instances of web pages depicting child sexual abuse content, across 1,316 websites around the world.
The success of the IWF may be gauged from the fact that of the total of nearly 9,000 web pages depicting such content, just 40 notices (less than 0.2 per cent) needed to be issued where such content was based in the UK.
The overall level of reports remains much the same as it has done over the last three or four years – down from a peak of 10,656 URLs assessed as featuring child sexual abuse in 2006. However, according to the IWF, the shape of the market for this sort of material is changing, becoming more organised and more dependent on big suppliers.
Forty-eight per cent of all child sexual abuse content reports processed (commercial and non-commercial) were traced to networks in North America; 44 per cent to Europe and Russia.
The number of domains from which child abuse material could be accessed fell over the same period from 3,077 to 1,316 – or just over 57 per cent. Behind the scenes, the IWF claimed to have identified at least 450 distinct criminal ‘brands’ selling images and videos of the sexual abuse of children, worldwide.
Within these, the ten most prolific ‘brands’ alone accounted for more than 650 unique web pages. By removing and disrupting these ‘gateway’ pages the IWF helped to disable access to many thousands of images, as well as the membership and payment systems which support this criminal business.
IWF Chief Executive Peter Robbins said: "Sharing this data with those investigating the criminal distribution of images at an international level brings us a step closer to eradicating the problem.
"Although internet usage and the volume of content continue to rise globally, we are not seeing a proportionate rise in commercial child sexual abuse material which instead appears to have remained fairly static over recent years.
"This indicates that our international partnerships are having an impact however there is still a significant challenge. The techniques used by distributers are diversifying, becoming more complex, quicker, cheaper and more opportunistic than ever before. It is critical we understand and stay ahead of these changing patterns.”
The IWF also noted a trend towards the exploitation of legitimate internet services for the distribution of child sexual abuse content: from free hosting platforms and image sharing websites to social networking areas and hacked websites.
Systems to evade detection were becoming increasingly sophisticated, with distribution networks regularly switched between hosting providers and countries. The severity of the content dealt with by the IWF continues to be extremely grave, with 72 per cent of child victims appearing to be under 10 years old and 44 per cent of images depicting the rape or sexual torture of a child.
For the future, the IWF argued that a number of tactics need now to be adopted worldwide. These include:
• Swift removal (of child abuse material) at source
• Deregistration of domain names dedicated to content sharing or selling
• Blocking and filtering of web pages
• Increased international collaboration.
If the IWF in its role as protector of children is evolving, maturing and taking on an altogether more strategic remit, its other portfolios, in respect of material that is criminally obscene or racist are looking increasingly like awkward add-ons.
Almost all the content reported to the IWF as allegedly criminally obscene adult content was either not hosted in the UK and therefore outside their remit, or was assessed by not to contravene the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and 1964: just two out of 2,651 reports required further action. All content containing potentially criminal incitement to racial hatred (1,228 reports) turns out to have been hosted abroad, and therefore outside its remit.
A lack of international agreement on what constitutes obscenity and racism means no further action was possible. Given how little good the IWF is achieving in respect of these last two categories – and how much stick it takes for policing them – perhaps the time has come to drop them altogether and to focus on the area where it is clearly a world leader: the removal of child abuse material from the internet. ®