IWF calls for changes to Bill to ensure it does not disrupt current mechanisms for stopping child sexual abuse on the internet

Published:  Tue 24 May 2022

Written by:  By Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation

  • The IWF could help make the Government’s response to online child sexual abuse strong and effective from day one, making sure no child is left behind or their suffering left undetected.
  • Despite this, there is still no timetable or plan for how the regulation of online safety is going to work in practice, or how Ofcom and Government may achieve its vision for a collaborative regulator.
  • Today, the IWF calls on the Public Bill Committee to introduce an amendment to the Online Safety Bill enabling Ofcom to co-designate with the IWF to regulate child sexual abuse material online (CSAM).

For the IWF, we believe there is much to be positive about in the Bill. The introduction of a Duty of Care, Risk Assessment, and in-scope companies being subjected to ongoing to review and dialogue with a new online safety regulator, Ofcom, as well as the introduction of mandatory reporting for child sexual abuse material, are to be welcomed.

A lot of thought has gone into the development of the legislation. It attempts to strike a balance between protecting children from harm and not infringing on civil liberties such as freedom of expression online.

In our area of expertise this is perhaps easier than others. We are fortunate in the harms we deal with that they are clearly illegal. The requirements within the Bill to minimise the spread of illegal content online, the length of time it is available for, and ensuring it is swiftly removed, have been principles at the heart of the IWF’s approach for 25 years.

Our concern is ensuring the legislation builds on this current best practice and does not disrupt effective mechanisms at dealing with one of the most egregious harms there could possibly be online.

There is no doubt that this Bill is globally leading. It is certainly going to come into force earlier than proposals published by the European Commission last week, which will not become operational until 2029/30.

But there is more that Parliament and this Committee of MPs can do to further improve protections for children.

The Government must ensure we build on our globally leading approach to dealing with CSE/A online – each year the IWF removes millions and millions of images and videos of children being sexually abused. In 1996, when the IWF was founded, 18% of the world’s known child sexual abuse material was hosted in the UK. Today it is less than 1% and has been ever since 2003.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded that the work of the IWF is central to the reason comparatively little CSAM is hosted in the UK and that we sit at the heart of the national response in combatting the proliferation of child sexual abuse images in the UK.

The Government’s vision set out in its white paper response was for a collaborative regulator, one who could use several leavers to collaborate with partners including partnerships, MoUs, and, most importantly for us, co-designation.

Co-designation would enable Ofcom to partner formally with organisations like the IWF, which have a strong understanding of how CSAM manifests online, strong collaborative relationships with industry, law enforcement, and others, and help provide our input and expertise in how companies should be regulated.

The IWF has devoted time and thought into ways this would work in practice. The IWF could help and utilise our expertise to make the response strong and effective from day one, making sure no child is left behind or their suffering left undetected.

Despite this, there is still no timetable or plan for how the regulation of online safety is going to work in practice, or how Ofcom and Government may achieve its vision for a collaborative regulator.

That is why today, we will be calling on the Public Bill Committee to introduce an amendment on the face of the Bill which enables Ofcom to co-designate with the IWF to regulate CSAM online.

The IWF is also a signatory to a range of other amendments submitted to the Committee on ensuring that there is a duty on Ofcom to collaborate with other regulators, ensuring that there are appropriate checks and balances on the power and directions from the Secretary of State that preserve Ofcom’s independence as proposed by the Carnegie Trust and supported by several other organisations.

Many people may wonder why these details matter. But if we truly want to lead the world in how we regulate online harms, the simple truth is, every detail of how this is achieved is crucial.

Whilst much of the regime to enable the flexibility to respond to future technical developments is left, quite rightly, to secondary legislation, there are things the regulator and Government can be doing now to ensure we speed up our approach to regulation.

We already have an interim CSE/A Code of Practice; more could be done to encourage in-scope companies to begin conversations with the IWF and certainty could be given to organisations Ofcom are seeking to work with by publishing a clear timetable for implementation on when these decisions will be taken.

As the line-by-line scrutiny gets under way, we look forward to working with the Committee to further explore how we can improve the Bill in the interest of children by building on what works.

We must never forget the vulnerable and abused children this Bill is intended to protect. It is they who must have the assurance we will use every possible lever at our disposal to protect them and make the internet safer for all.

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