Anti-smut boss: 'We won't be net police'
Even if UK.gov thinks IWF are already
The Internet Watch Foundation has no intention of becoming the UK government's net police, its new boss has declared.
Speaking to El Reg in her first interview in her new role at the IWF, Susie Hargreaves also revealed the need for greater openness, independence and transparency at the anti-child sex abuse organisation. The IWF's fundamentals, she believes, are just about right, but the public don’t always get what it does.
Meeting at the Commonwealth Club, near London's Charing Cross, Hargreaves is smartly turned out and slightly nervous. She was passed the baton from Peter Robbins, who spent the best part of a decade successfully transforming the IWF from a slightly suspect fringe organisation – and bête noire of the civil liberties lobby – to what is now reckoned to be a world-class model for tackling the spread of child abuse material online.
The organisation is frequently praised by governments and eyed up by ministers who see it as a potential agent for greater enforcement of official policy on the net.
She does not have, as Robbins did, a policing background. Was that a deliberate decision by the IWF? She says not.
Rather, she tells us: "I have a track record of advocacy, both at home and internationally, and I see a major part of my role now as building new links between stakeholders and international partners and supporters."
Throughout her career, she has worked with charitable causes, governance and young people, and believes all three come together in the challenges faced by the IWF. She adds: "Working for the IWF will help me fulfil another passion: the elimination of child abuse online."
There is a hint, too, that the IWF is seeking to expand its funding base to make it less reliant on one or two funding sources, particularly its EU grant. Again, this is a role for which Hargreaves is well suited.
"The IWF," she stresses, "is not about policing the net. Nor should it be. It needs to remain independent of government and police. Independent funding is a key part of that."
The IWF may wish to be seen as independent, but, we suggest, that is not how many ordinary users of the internet see it. Robbins at one time spoke of his hope that the need for the IWF would one day just fade away. But is it still necessary and how justified are its interventions?
Agreeing that the number of URLs on the current block list (500 to 600 at any one time) is a long way short of the 1,500 average that were there a few years back, Hargreaves argued that this in part reflects a position today that is far more dynamic.
She said: "Sites set up and clear down within 24 hours, as compared to weeks previously.
"In our last annual report, in 2010, the IWF highlighted the fact that we received some 10,000 more reports of potential child abuse sites on the web than in 2009.
"It is very hard to define exactly who is behind these sites: greater research is needed to identify the prime movers and their motives. At the end of the day, the 'enemy' is the sites themselves. They pose a threat to children, and therefore there needs to be a response to them, which the IWF provides."
Selling itself to the public
In terms of public awareness, and justification, Hargreaves suggested: "If the IWF has a failing, it is in the fact it has not got across the full story of what it is about: that, in turn, calls for even greater transparency and openness."
As part of this move towards reflecting the public mood, she ticks off recent initiatives, including:
- An independent audit in 2011 by a panel of individuals, including senior police officers, a barrister and a leading social work expert, which confirmed that all of the URLs on the IWF block list, compiled on behalf of its members, contained only child sexual abuse images;
- a complaints and appeals procedure in respect of takedown of sites in the UK; and
- a genuinely cautious approach to images blocked, including very careful consideration of any images considered to be at "level 1" – the lowest level of seriousness on the sentencing scale, including erotic posing, but not nudity.
Referencing the infamous Scorpions case, when an IWF block on an album's cover artwork (already in wide public circulation) led to a temporary block of parts of Wikipedia, she adds: "The fact that there has been no repetition of the Scorpions incident in the last three years suggests we have been listening and learning."
She also admits that the IWF is still debating whether it should seek additional judicial oversight.
In recent years, the IWF has widened its net slightly. To its original concern with child abuse images, and imagery that breaches the Obscene Publications Act, it has added "extreme porn" (2008) and "cartoon images" of child abuse (2009).
The first two remain a very small part of the IWF’s work and the focus of the second is largely on images that are bestial in nature. In respect of cartoon images, the IWF dealt with just six such images in the UK last year – all of a highly realistic nature – and none so far this year, at time of writing. In none of these categories does the IWF operate blocks: rather, it reports the matter to the local police and lets them take the matter forward.
Which brings us full circle to the question of whether the IWF is in danger of turning into a "net police"? Hargreaves thinks not: "There is no one on the IWF board from the police. Members come from a range of backgrounds, including human rights and some have strong anti-censorship views: the role of the IWF is to implement a takedown and filtering of material in line with what the industry wants."
And there, she suggests, is the heart of the matter. It is not unusual to hear the IWF praised by government – or even ministers suggesting, sotto voce, that the IWF could be used as a solution to this or other problems, namely online bullying, terrorist sites and even piracy.
But so far, all such pressures have been resisted. MPs, she tells us, “recognise that the IWF does what it does best by sticking to a very specific focus”.
Greater transparency and wider public involvement in the work of the IWF is definitely desired. In the end, though: "The IWF is very clear as to its remit, which is in line with what the UK internet industry wants it to take up. There are no plans to change that remit – and that is what makes the IWF strong". ®
According to the IWF website, Hargreaves has worked in the charity sector for 25 years, "most recently as CEO of The Society of Dyers and Colourists". Before that, the IWF says, she held a series of "senior positions" running membership organisations.