DSIT Secretary of State foreword

The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP

I am pleased to welcome the Internet Watch Foundation’s annual report for 2023. This document reflects the remarkable work that the IWF is doing and serves as a testament to its unwavering commitment to protecting children from online child sexual exploitation and abuse.  

Since IWF’s last annual report, online safety in Britain has begun a fundamental shift for the better, following the passing of the Online Safety Act last November.  

I drove forward this landmark piece of legislation, the most comprehensive of its kind anywhere in the world, because it will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online, with a legal framework that mirrors the basic common sense we all know and share. 

I am talking about simple, powerful principles like ‘what is illegal offline should be illegal online’ and ‘if a social media platform tells users they do not allow certain types of content, they should stick to their word’.  

Until now, the scales were heavily weighted against parents, who faced an impossible task in a world where their children are only a couple of clicks away from adulthood. I knew that had to change. Together, these principles will help right that historic imbalance.  

Through rigorous debate, consultation, and collaboration, the IWF played an indispensable role in shaping the Online Safety Act and, crucially, in strengthening its protections for children.  

However, the job has not finished with Royal Assent, as we work together to implement the legislation and put those principles into practice. 

There is no time to wait if we want to keep our children safe. We have already brought the majority of the Act’s provisions into force, along with the powers that Ofcom needs to regulate the Online Safety regime. This milestone means that we can hold heinous online criminals to account. Earlier this year, the first conviction was made under the Act’s new offence for cyberflashing.  

The Online Safety Act is already making a tangible difference for children and adults in the real world. However, there is more to be done Ofcom is in the process of consulting on, and finalising, its guidance and codes of practice so companies are clear on how to protect their customers.  But our message is the same: from now on, you are responsible for your users’ safety.  

 My commitment extends beyond the scope of the Online Safety Act. As technology evolves faster than ever, I will do all I can to make our online world safer for all, using innovative solutions to stay ahead of emerging challenges. Here, continued collaboration with experts like the IWF will be more important than ever. 

Technology is already playing a key role in helping companies meet their online safety obligations. Here, the UK is a world leader; the last year alone saw the revenues of our online safety technology sector increase by 20% to reach £456m.  

Looking to the future, I want to harness industry’s expertise to drive growth, promote innovation and protect British users. The second round of our Safety Tech Challenge Fund recently saw three companies receive grant funding to develop tools to tackle the emerging threat of link-sharing of child sexual abuse material – including one which used hash lists compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation.  

One of the greatest technological challenges of our age is, of course, artificial intelligence. AI offers incredible opportunities to grow our economy, create new jobs and make our lives longer, happier and healthier. But with those opportunities come new risks, too. In the past year, we have pioneered an approach to AI that will enable us to harness the benefits of this technology whilst keeping our people safe.   

Earlier this year, I set out a pro-innovation, pro-safety approach to AI regulation in the government’s response to the AI Regulation White Paper consultation. My approach will build on our success as the host of the first ever AI Safety Summit last year, and the pioneering work of our AI Safety Institute to advance artificial intelligence for the public good. IWF is part of that story too, undertaking world-leading work to identify AI harms in relation to children. 

Like AI, online safety is fundamentally a global issue; neither the Internet nor its harms respect our national boundaries, and international collaboration will be crucial for finding solutions 

To do that, I want to collaborate more closely than ever with like-minded countries around the world to build a better Internet for our people. So far in 2024, we have already signed an Online Safety and Security Memorandum of Understanding with Australia to deepen our cooperation on online safety and help shape a global consensus on tackling online harms. In the same month, the UK also joined France’s Child Online Protection Laboratory, driving forward our work with trusted partners including New Zealand, Spain and the United States to answer some of the thorniest questions on child online safety.  
I am clear that the road to a safe online world for our children will be long and winding; we cannot overestimate the challenges ahead. But – with the ceaseless determination and ambition of groups like the IWF – we can together build a digital future that delivers better for every one of us.