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Our history

We’ve been fighting to defend children online since 1996.

Since we began, our analysts have assessed more than 1.5 million reports of child sexual abuse imagery online. They’ve removed over 710,000 individual illegal webpages.

The numbers are shocking, but they don’t tell the whole story. The children in the pictures are real. Some are just babies. Some are being raped, or even tortured. Their suffering, their abuse, is very real.

We were established to stop illegal images and videos of children from being uploaded and circulated online. Our job, from day one, has been to defend young victims from having a record of their suffering shared again and again. To stop the abuse from being perpetuated.

It’s a tough job. But our analysts have become global experts. Their knowledge has led to millions of disturbing illegal images of child abuse being removed from the internet. It’s also led to some victims of abuse being rescued. It’s vital work.

From the beginning our approach has been tech-led. We’ve pushed the boundaries of new technology to build cutting edge tools to help our analysts track down illegal imagery and defend children online. Our research, based on unique data from the Hotline, is aimed at identifying trends in offending to help law makers, the police and the tech community better protect children.

When we started, in 1996, over 18 per cent of the world’s child sexual abuse imagery was hosted in the UK. Today that figure is less than one per cent. The next step is to take our knowledge, our fight, to countries across the world.

Together we can better defend all children online.

710,000 Number of webpages removed since 1996
1500000 Number of reports assessed since 1996

How we started

In 1996, the Metropolitan Police identified indecent images of children on some UK based newsgroups.  They notified the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA).

At the time, the police believed this may have constituted a publication offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 (England and Wales), by the UK internet service providers (ISPs).

The internet industry in the UK tried to find a way to combat the hosting of these ‘indecent’ images of children, whilst protecting the tech community from being held criminally liable for providing access to the illegal imagery. 

It was a difficult problem, both legally and technically. The penny began to drop. Technology could make it easier to harm kids.

Something had to be done.  Discussions were held between the former Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police, some ISPs and the Safety Net Foundation (formed by the Dawe Charitable Trust). The outcome of the talks was that ISPA, the London Internet Exchange (LINX) and the Safety Net Foundation would create an R3 Safety Net Agreement regarding rating, reporting and responsibility.

An important element of the Agreement was to established an independent organisation to receive, assess and trace public complaints about child sexual abuse imagery on the internet and to support the development of specific website rating systems.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was born.

Since we were set up in 1996 we’ve been running a Hotline service for people to report potentially criminal images and videos of child sexual abuse. We’ve also been responsible for issuing ‘takedown notices’ to UK ISPs in partnership with the police. This means that they can remove the illegal imagery.

Our Hotline was formally launched in December 1996, to combat child sexual abuse images and criminally obscene adult content hosted in the UK. Since then, our work has had to develop rapidly to stay ahead of a very technical curve. The spread of illegal images of children online exploded with the internet.

The criminals who abuse children, then perpetuate the abuse by sharing the suffering online are ruthless. And contrary to popular belief, they don’t restrict their illegal activities to the dark web. These abusers use legitimate services to help them circulate illegal imagery.

That’s why we’ve created Tech for Good, to build unique tools and services to help the tech community make their services safer and stronger. That way they can help defend and protect children, while making the internet safer for all.

Read more about our journey to protect children online in our Annual Report

IWF leadership team with David Cameron
The IWF leadership team with David Cameron at the WeProtect Global Summit in 2014
Our 2008 campaign to raise awareness of child sexual abuse online
Marking 20 years of the IWF

View our 20th Anniversary Interactive Timeline.

The good news

It’s a sad truth that abusers, criminals who harm children, will use any new tool or advance in technology. Without a doubt, the internet has provided them with a global stage for their cruelty.

But since our humble beginnings, we’ve grown to become a world-leader in protecting children online. We use advanced technology and human expertise to support young victims. Our knowledge helps governments shape new laws; laws that will help defend the victims of child sexual abuse online; laws that help keep all young people safe online.

And we’re building cutting edge tools and services, Tech for Good, to help fight to defend children from the criminals who are dedicated to abusing, grooming or profiting from their suffering.

We’re doing the right thing.

Our latest news

New European proposals show 'welcome determination to front up to criminals' abusing and exploiting children online

New European proposals show 'welcome determination to front up to criminals' abusing and exploiting children online

On May 11, the European Commission announced its new European strategy for laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse.

12 May 2022 News
Calls for focus on prevention as Europe still hosting 'horrible numbers' of child sexual abuse sites

Calls for focus on prevention as Europe still hosting 'horrible numbers' of child sexual abuse sites

The IWF was in Brussels to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the IWF and to discuss forthcoming EU legislation to tackle Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

5 May 2022 News
Europe remains ‘global hub’ for hosting of online child sexual abuse material

Europe remains ‘global hub’ for hosting of online child sexual abuse material

Despite efforts to curb the amount of child sexual abuse material hosted on the continent, Europe remains the ‘destination of choice’ for criminals and predators determined to host criminal content.

26 April 2022 News
Sexual abuse imagery of girls online at record high following pandemic lockdowns

Sexual abuse imagery of girls online at record high following pandemic lockdowns

New data published by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows girls are at increasing risk online. The Online Safety Bill is a once in a generation chance to offer better protection for children.

26 April 2022 News
IWF partners with MTN, Meta, ICMEC and Child Helpline International on a vital child sexual abuse awareness campaign and launches Africa portal to help prevent the spread of child sexual abuse material online

IWF partners with MTN, Meta, ICMEC and Child Helpline International on a vital child sexual abuse awareness campaign and launches Africa portal to help prevent the spread of child sexual abuse material online

7 April 2022 News
Calls for greater clarity as new Online Safety Bill is introduced in the Commons

Calls for greater clarity as new Online Safety Bill is introduced in the Commons

The IWF welcomed the new Bill, but said there needs to be greater clarity in how the Bill will be implemented

17 March 2022 News