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IWF: Child abuse domains down, reports up

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The Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) Annual Report reveals an apparent fall of nearly 10 per cent in the number of international websites hosting child sexual abuse content.

The report is slightly less forthcoming about the IWF’s own little local difficulties with Wikipedia back in December, and the recipe it puts forward for best practice in this area may not receive universal acclaim. Overall, though, they are justifiably pleased with the results of their work over the last year.

The IWF was set up by the Internet Service Providers Association to monitor and take action in respect of certain types of criminal content available on the web. Its primary focus – and the area in which most of its work is done - is in child abuse imagery. However, it also keeps a watch on material deemed to be criminally obscene or racially abusive.

It runs a hotline that records complaints from the public. Where material falling into any of the above categories is found to be hosted in the UK, the matter is referred to the police for further investigation and possible action. Thus, a complaint to the IWF about a gruesome story featuring the pop group Girls Aloud will later this year give the UK its first prosecution for obscenity in respect of purely written material in over a decade.

Where material is hosted abroad, the IWF acts only in respect of child porn, assessing the seriousness of the image, and where it deems it necessary, adding the URL for the page containing the image to its blocklist. Use of this blocklist is currently voluntary, with close to 97 per cent of UK ISPs taking it. The Government is looking at whether it needs to legislate to make it compulsory for UK-based ISPs.

According to the IWF, in 2008:

• It issued 59 notices, in partnership with UK police forces, to UK internet service providers or host companies to take down potentially illegal content hosted on UK networks

• It provided specific data and intelligence to 22 police forces and agencies throughout the UK in support of potential prosecutions

• There was a three per cent decrease in reports processed by IWF Hotline, to approximately 34,000

• There was a nine per cent decrease since 2007 and a 21 per cent decrease since 2006, in the number of domains confirmed to contain indecent images of children (1,536).

The report also highlights the fact that 74 per cent of child sexual abuse domains traced by IWF are commercial operations selling indecent images of children, and 75 per cent of these (some 850 unique domains) are registered with just 10 domain name registries.

Some critics have argued that one effect of the focus on websites is simply to push illicit activity on to private networks and P2P. A spokeswoman for the IWF explained that such matters were beyond the IWF’s remit.

"In such cases, there is an offender on either end of the connection and therefore this is wholly a matter for the police," she said. "Our primary concern alongside reducing the availability of indecent material, is to reduce the likelihood of individuals stumbling across it by accident. In this we are succeeding."

On its run-in with Wikipedia, the IWF report is broadly open in its description of what happened, classifying the outcome as a learning experience. Whilst there is no mention of the furore that followed, there are some hints that the IWF has taken the lesson on board, with a commitment to addressing the issues raised in the year ahead.

Last but by no means least is the IWF’s suggested best practice model in this area. No surprises to find that their recommendations include "Public/private partnership involving service providers working through a system of self-regulation".

What this suggestion neatly ducks is a debate going on in a number of EU states right now about the proper legal footing for the sort of approach taken by the IWF. In Germany, for instance, while all are agreed on the need to restrict the flow of indecent imagery of children, there appears to be a wide gap between those who see speed as being of the essence, and those who feel that some degree of judicial oversight – possibly after the event – needs to be inserted into the process. ®

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