The number of URLs hosting child abuse content has risen significantly over the last year – but the scale of the problem has not changed, and take-down time has improved dramatically.
Those were the highlights of yesterday's Internet Watch Foundation 2010 Annual Report (PDF/3.9MB) presented to an assembly of the great and the good at a reception in the House of Commons yesterday evening.
The report revealed that the IWF hotline processed some 48,702 reports during 2010, which was an increase of 27.9 per cent over 2009. This led to the identification of some 16,739 potentially criminal URLs – an increase of 89.3 per cent over the last year – over which the foundation took action.
These pages were tracked back to 41 different countries, with six top level domains accounting for 86.4 per cent of all pages identified (.com, .ru, .jp, .net, .es, .org).
The IWF attributes these two increases to two unrelated trends: on the one hand, reports are going up, because the public are becoming more aware of the role of the IWF and procedures for reporting content. The increase in URLs appears to be linked to a shift in the hosting pattern, as opposed to any general increase in content available.
A spokeswoman for the IWF told us: "The number of domains being used to host child abuse material has remained static for several years. About half of all commercial abusive content comes from just 10 'brands' of commercial child sexual abuse.
"What seems to be changing is that the number of URLs involved has increased, but this is because the image-to-URL ratio has been falling. Those posting child abuse content are putting up fewer pictures per URL.
"Our sense is therefore that the overall amount of content on the net is not increasing: it is merely being hosted differently."
The report also contains a bar chart tracking the improvement of takedown times. According to the graph, last year in April, over 180 abuse images took over a month to be taken down. By December, that figure had dropped to less than 60. The report said the majority of content is now removed within days.
What may also be changing is the nature of the individual putting content up. We also spoke with Eve Salomon, IWF Chair. She told us that one significant change in pattern over the last year or so was the way in which material was being put up on a non-commercial basis – often for free.
This confirms evidence collated last year by the The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Unit (CEOP) and the European Financial Coalition, suggesting that the economics of child abuse make it less of a focus for organised crime than popular belief would have it. Rather, sharing of images was often a form of "sick social networking", with abusers either passing on images as a form of one-upmanship, or possibly in the hope of inspiring others to reciprocate by providing images of their own activity.
She suggested that more research needs to be done in this area.
We also asked Salomon about the claim, by Dutch ISPs, in a letter sent to the Dutch Minister of Justice in November 2010, but only released earlier this month, that URL-blocking was ineffective and counter-productive. The Dutch ISPs specifically cite the UK experience, where blocking has led to a dramatic initial reduction from 2,000 URLs on the blocklist at any one time, to the current figure of 500.
Salomon rejected this view, claiming that the IWF provided a safety net: that while it was true the number of active URLs had fallen, there was no guarantee that this state of affairs would continue if pressure provided by the IWF was removed. In addition, she pointed out, the amount of child abuse material hosted in the UK was now almost zero.
Other routes for accessing child abuse material were monitored and, where possible, disrupted by bodies such as the CEOP.
The IWF report celebrates some 15 years of achievement in the area of child protection. Behind the figures lie a number of human success stories that often receive less publicity. In particular, yesterday, the IWF were proud to relate how reports of content featuring two British girls led to the rescue of two child victims in the UK.
As a spokeswoman told us: "This side of our work is often overlooked". ®