Child abuse images – developments in the UK


Of late there has been a great deal of media attention given to discussions taking place within the UK about how to tackle online child abuse images. This blog is a recap of how I understand the current position.

Universal coverage? Probably.

If not all then very nearly every UK based company providing access to the internet, and a number of other providers of online electronic services available in the UK, are actively engaged in the fight against child abuse images on the web.

If child abuse material is found on a UK web server the IWF will issue a notice to the hosting company and the offending content will be removed, typically within 60 minutes. In relation to material found on web servers outside the UK the IWF will inform the appropriate agencies. They tend to be slower. Pending removal the url goes on a block list.

Ofcom, the UK’s statutory telecoms regulator, found 98.6% of all domestic ISP accounts were with ISPs that deployed the IWF’s url block list. The number may be 100%. What some smaller ISPs are doing was difficult to determine but if, as seems likely, they receive and re-badge their feed from a larger provider then their customers are covered anyway. A new EU-wide law comes into effect in December underpinning url blocking. The amount of child abuse material found on UK based web servers hovers around 0.2% or less of the world total, down from a high of 18% recorded in 1996.

Mobile phone networks and WiFi providers also on board

Every mobile phone company provides access to the internet and to content which they themselves publish or co-publish over their own network. In respect of the internet component all mobile phone companies apply the IWF block list. Obviously, on their own networks no child abuse material is ever published.

Every large WiFi provider applies the IWF list. The smaller ones are likely to follow suit, if they haven’t done so already.

Newsgroups covered

The IWF also issues notices in respect of individual postings of child abuse images found in Usenet Newsgroups. In addition, where a Newsgroup has a name which states or implies that child abuse images are likely to be found there or where, irrespective of the name, images are regularly found, the Newsgroup as a whole will be listed and blocked.

It’s all voluntary

Strictly-speaking no one is compelled to use the IWF list or act on any of its notices. Companies are free to disagree with individual decisions of the IWF or to ignore them altogether. However, in practice this never happens. The legal and PR risks are substantial. Thus, all IWF notices received will be acted upon and the IWF blocking list will be implemented as is. It cannot be removed, lifted or modified by an end user.

Clear legal basis

The legal foundations of the IWF’s operations are set out in a memorandum signed by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Association of Chief Police Officers. The memorandum is rooted in the Sexual Offences Act, 2003. The IWF’s processes are entirely compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, following the Wikipedia incident (which was a mistake, although who made it is another matter) the IWF is currently being audited by a distinguished human rights lawyer. The report is expected soon. Nobody imagines the IWF will “fail”.

What next?

The Prime Minister is currently making a major push in relation to search engines. There are two key prongs:

  • Search engines should not aid or abet paedophiles or collectors in locating child abuse material, paedophile networks or information likely to fuel their illegal behaviour.
  • On the contrary search engines should seek to deflect or deter paedophiles and collectors by, for example, deploying appropriately worded splash pages or by providing nil returns to search requests seeking material or connections of that type. There is no suggestion search companies should routinely collect or report the IP addresses of users who have triggered the appearance of a splash page. That would almost certainly be illegal. 

 And finally

Could splash pages be used in other online environments? Undoubtedly and that is being considered. The Prime Minister is also pushing for an increased level of activity on Peer2Peer and filesharing networks e.g. through a larger deployment of hash-based technology and an associated increase in law enforcement activity.

 Watch this space.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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