How the IWF Successfully Curbs Online Abuse and What Non-Profits Can Do to Help

This is a guest blog co-authored by Michael Tunks, IWF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, and Jenny Thornton, IWF International Development Manager

At the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), we are in the unique and privileged position of being able to have a direct impact on the lives of children and young people all over the world. There are few organizations across the globe who have the trusted relationships that we enjoy with law enforcement, governments, industry and a broad range of stakeholders across internet ecosystem.

In 2017 alone, we identified more than 80,000 instances of child sexual abuse imagery online. Based on our experiences and successes, we have been able to reduce the known hosting of child sexual abuse content in the UK from 18% in 1996, to less than 1% today.

There are several reasons why we have been so successful in removing child sexual abuse images and videos online.

Strong Legislative Support

Firstly, we’re fortunate. The UK has one of the world’s strongest legal frameworks and successive governments have been committed to extending it where necessary. That has enabled us to carry out our vital work of disrupting child sexual abuse content from spreading online.

Internet Industry Network

Secondly, the internet industry contributes to our mission by funding our work, trusting our judgement and working with us to achieve our charitable objectives. Our Members from the online industry remove the images our Analysts define to be illegal, in line with UK Law Enforcement standards, often within two hours of us notifying the company that their services have been abused. This is one of the fastest removal times anywhere in the world. In many other countries, our partner hotlines or law enforcement must get a court order before having illegal content removed. Speeding up the process not only saves time, but also reduces costs.

Law Enforcement Partnership

Thirdly, without a strong working relationship with law enforcement, we would not be able to operate in the way we do. Viewing child sexual abuse images is illegal and clearly defined as such in UK Law. Thanks to our Memorandum of Understanding with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), our staff are protected from prosecution for the work they do. We also work closely with law enforcement before removing images from the internet, so as not to prejudice any ongoing investigations that are taking place. Our work is a two-way street.

Effective Tools and Services

Finally, the IWF provides the internet industry with world-leading services, which better protect their internet users from stumbling across this horrific content online. Services such as our URL blocking list disables public access to the illegal content that our Analysts have deemed to fail UK Law standards, in predominantly other jurisdictions, before it is taken down. Our Image Hash list implements Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology to turn child sexual abuse images into unique codes or ‘hashes’, which allows companies to automatically match known images before they appear on their services.

What Non-Profits Can Do to Help Curb Abuse

So, what can other non-governmental organizations do to build upon the IWF’s successes globally? Firstly, NGOs have the unparalleled ability to bring a broad range of stakeholders together. Through effective campaigning, international and national NGOs alike can put pressure on governments to ensure that child sexual abuse stays high on the political agenda. They can campaign for governments globally to recognise child rights and encourage them to participate in policy forums that can change government policy. This will enable NGOs to respond better to the evolving threat of child sexual abuse online.

One of the ways we partner with other NGOs is working with them in countries where we are currently launching or operating IWF Reporting Portals. At the IWF, we believe that every citizen in the world should be able to report suspected child sexual abuse and have the content removed, if it is confirmed as illegal. Hotlines are costly to establish and might not be the most suitable option for every country around the world, as they require future resourcing commitments and technical understanding to run. The IWF Reporting Portal is a low-cost and quick-to-set-up solution that allows countries to benefit from our expertise tackling online child sexual abuse imagery. In return, we ask that NGOs, governmental bodies and Law Enforcement Agencies that we partner with own the promotion of the Reporting Portal and raise awareness of how to report locally, ensuring that the Portal is accessible to all citizens. NGOs are in a prime position to reach out to the public, since they are the key link to civil society in most contexts.

NGOs are also contributing to the global knowledge-base of child sexual abuse material online trends. Our latest research on child sexual abuse live-streaming distribution revealed shocking statistics on children being groomed, coerced and blackmailed into live-streaming. ECPAT International’s study on the changing patterns of material being identified globally has also improved the understanding trends in victim, offender and content over time.

We believe that NGOs are in a unique position of being independent. This independence can be harnessed to improve trust and confidence in the process of anonymous reporting. We believe anonymity is hugely important to encouraging effective reporting and to potentially safeguard the lives of vulnerable children, whilst potentially bringing abusers to justice.

Learn more about our international work and our work with other non-profits here: https://www.iwf.org.uk/what-we-do/how-we-assess-and-remove-content/who-we-work.