Eradicating child sexual abuse images: beyond rhetoric and borders

By the Internet Watch Foundation

Reflecting our area of expertise and experience, this post focuses on child sexual abuse content which is as much an issue for the UK internet as for every country, every law enforcement body, every facet of the global internet community, and every citizen.

  1. There are few issues so serious, on and offline, as child sexual abuse; and there are few mediums so appropriate for the distribution, sharing and trade in records of this abuse than the internet.
  2. There are few technologies in our lives so revolutionary and full of opportunity as the internet.
  3. The abuse of the internet by criminals around the world for the distribution, sharing, and trade of child sexual abuse images can be thwarted.

What we do

IWF was established in 1996 by the UK internet industry to provide the UK internet ‘Hotline’ for the public to report criminal online content within remit, primarily child sexual abuse images, and to be the ‘notice and take-down’ body for that content. This remains our core role which we carry out in partnership with the online industry, law enforcement, government, the education sector, charities, and, international partners.

We are an independent self-regulatory body, funded by the EU and the wider online industry. We work with UK government to influence initiatives developed to combat online abuse and this dialogue goes beyond the UK and Europe to ensure greater awareness of global issues, trends and responsibilities. We work internationally with INHOPE and other relevant authorities and organisations to encourage wider adoption of good practice in combating online child sexual abuse content and to promote inclusive and united global responses to this dynamic, cross-border criminality.

What we know

The scale and scope of child sexual abuse content on the internet is the subject of much speculation; in fact we believe it is decreasing and that the remaining core represents a concrete target for investigation. Of those websites that remain active today, some have been in existence for many years; most are commercial; and most depict the abuse of young children suffering severe levels of sexual exploitation.

Since 1996 we have dealt with more than 200,000 reports and have over 13 years’ experience of tracking and understanding the technologies and behaviour behind the websites. According to our most recent data:

  • 58% of child sexual abuse domains traced contain graphic images involving penetration or torture.
  • 69% of the children appear to be 10 years old or younger.
  • 74% of child sexual abuse domains traced are commercial operations.
  • 75% of these commercial domains are registered with 10 domain name registries or registrars
  • It is still rare to trace child sexual abuse content to hosts in the UK (under 1%) but when it occurs it is removed within hours by the UK internet industry.

The UK approach is grounded in partnership and self-regulation. In our experience, the most effective way of combating criminal content is to work closely with the wider internet industry as well as with government and law enforcement agencies.

What we recommend

This is an extremely fast-moving environment. What had an impact two years ago is becoming obsolete. The technologies of abuse are often developed by sophisticated criminals and what will challenge us in two years time is difficult to predict. National police agencies may be without the resources to carry out long-term investigations into large-scale global networks of criminals whose activities span multiple jurisdictions, borders, and continents.

However, there are a number of tactics which are already having an effect in minimising the availability of this content and which, if adopted on a global scale could ensure the international internet community’s response to these crimes is more effective, faster and a better deterrent.

The IWF recommends that every country supports a Hotline which specialises in combating online child sexual abuse content using tactics which include:

  1. Operating a national notice and takedown system to swiftly remove child sexual abuse content at source.
  2. Operating a free reporting mechanism for the public to report their exposure to potentially illegal child sexual abuse content.
  3. Working in partnership with the national internet industry and with the support of government and law enforcement.
  4. Working with national domain name registries and registrars to remove domain names persistently distributing child sexual abuse images.
  5. Participating in international partnerships to share data, intelligence, and tactics in order to combat the cross-border nature of these crimes.

Given the global nature of the online distribution of child sexual abuse images, the most significant and influential development would be the establishment of a global law enforcement body to work with international Hotlines and the internet industry in order to move beyond jurisdictional barriers to tackle those involved in the production and distribution of child sexual abuse content. United, global investigations into the most prolific websites can bring those responsible to justice and rescue children from suffering.

What are the challenges to the global internet governance community?

  1. To support and inform the establishment of a global law enforcement body to work with international Hotlines and the internet industry which is dedicated to investigating child sexual abuse websites.
  2. To support the development of international notice and takedown systems to better enable the swift removal of criminal content at source.
  3. To establish a universal procedure for swiftly deregistering domain names dedicated to selling child sexual abuse images.
  4. To support the harmonisation of national legislation to include serious penalties for the online distribution, downloading, and possession of child sexual abuse images.
  5. To inform international debate and policymaking on how to prevent the abuse of new technologies for the sexual exploitation of children and to support initiatives designed to combat this abuse.

For more information on the IWF visit:

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