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IWF takes 'pragmatic' stance on level one images

Doesn't want to be 'forever embroiled' in grey areas

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The head of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has reiterated the organisation's focus on the most serious images of child abuse, implying a recalibration of its efforts to police borderline material.

When El Reg spoke with Peter Robbins, Chief Executive of the IWF last month, he was at pains to re-assure us that the the IWF was not into the numbers game – blocking any and everything where there was the slightest hint of impropriety.

Rather, the main focus was on the worst excesses: identifying instances of real child abuse and, where possible, liaising with official bodies such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) to identify victims and protect them from further harm.

Robbins said: "We are not in the business of going into grey areas. We don’t want to be forever embroiled in controversy over pictures that are borderline. There is enough serious child sexual abuse material out there to keep us very busy."

This implies a retreat from level one images – the least serious imagery in the eyes of the law. Robbins agrees.

However, he points out that prosecutions have succeeded in cases where the evidence fell short of even a level one standard of indecency. He cites a recent case where pictures were taken of children clothed and with parents present. Despite courts accepting that there was no paedophilic intent on the part of the photographer, a guilty verdict was still upheld.

On the questions that have excited the anti-censor lobby, Robbins suggests that if anyone has an issue, it should be with the underlying legal position, as the IWF does not make the law.

Case law in respect of indecency has evolved a fairly robust classification system of such images for sentencing purposes.

Level one images are the least serious, and defined as "images of erotic posing, with no sexual activity": nudity may be involved, but is not an essential characteristic of this category.

These have always been the most troublesome in respect of debates on censorship. Author and arch-critic of the IWF, Frank Fisher argues that a drawing back from level one is right and spikes the guns of the IWF’s enemies, leaving the policy with near-universal appeal.

He said: "Level one is essentially about skin – and the British have always equated skin with sex. The more skin you show, the more sexual is the content – when the issue became children’s skin the debate became, literally, hysterical and often anyone who questioned the automatic equation of nudity to indecency was shouted down as an apologist for paedophiles. That equation never sat happily with most parents.

"It was an over-cautious step too far. I’d say this is a victory for thoughtfulness, innocence, and for people who genuinely love children."

As for the current "refocussing" and the question of whether it does or does not represent a change of policy, a spokeswoman for the IWF is adamant that it is not.

The IWF will continue, as it always has done, to go after child abuse material in all its manifestations: but equally, pragmatically, it will devote more time and resource to, say, the direct physical abuse of 6- and 7-year-olds than to checking out borderline images that feature maybe 17-year-olds, maybe 19-year-olds.

In other words, no change: just a simple consistent policy that the public would broadly buy into.

CEOP this week said its focus has increasingly shifted to P2P exchange of images. The IWF itself has seen a major fall-off in the online imagery in the days since it was set up: if it maintains its focus on online content, and leaves more complex issues such as P2P to CEOP, then we could well see a day when the role of the IWF becomes significantly smaller.

Despite this, government appears to be planning to introduce new laws to force all internet service providers to adopt the IWF block list. ®

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