There are calls for further assurances from Government on future funding for “essential” projects like Safer Internet Day to help keep children safe online after European funding ends.
IWF CEO, Susie Hargreaves, told the Home Affairs Select Committee today (3 June) that the UK Safer Internet Centre requires funding to provide important services at what is a particularly important time with children spending increasing amounts of time online through the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms. Hargreaves also told MPs there is a “desperate need” for the Government to speed up new Online Harms legislation, as “deeply unhelpful” delays are causing uncertainty.
The Committee was discussing the Home Office’s preparedness for the Coronavirus crisis and the ensuing lockdown.
Ms Hargreaves said, however, the IWF has been “extremely heartened” by the Government’s response to the threats of child sexual abuse during the Covid-19 crisis.
She said Ministers and officials have been in close contact with the IWF and other organisations offering support during the pandemic.
Ms Hargreaves further explained that IWF analysts have continued working throughout the pandemic as they have been providing a key service keeping children safe and protecting victims during the crisis and had received designation from Government as key workers.
Ms Hargreaves said there is no “magic bullet solution” which will resolve the problem completely, and that the issue needs to be addressed from three angles; a legislative angle, an education and awareness angle, and also from a technological angle.
She told the Committee: “Ten per cent of our funding comes from the EU. There are no assurances that the Government will be able to pick that up, and that impacts on the UK Safer Internet Centre.”
Ms Hargreaves said this funding is worth £400,000 to the IWF, and for its partners, SWGfL and Childnet, it is up to 50% of their funding.
She said: “Without that money, Safer Internet Day will not run and, this year, Safer Internet Day reached 50% of all children in the UK, so it is absolutely essential that we have some assurances in place that the UK Safer Internet Centre will be protected post European funding ending.”
Labour MP Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) asked whether demand for child sexual abuse material has increased during the Coronavirus lockdown.
Ms Hargreaves replied: “Our feeling is, based on our experiences, there is often a time lag between images taken and their making their way and being circulated on the internet.”
She added: “We are expecting to see more of that content show over the next few months. So yes, we are concerned that we will see an increase. But we do also need to ensure that we talk to companies and that we take on board if they are seeing evidence of more reports at their end as well.”
Ms Hargreaves said that as hard data emerges, the IWF will be happy to share it with the committee.
Tory MP Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) asked whether the effects of reduced moderation of online platforms has yet been seen.
Ms Hargreaves said: “Obviously we were very concerned going into lock down that more children were going to be online for a lot longer and that the figures from the National Crime Agency say about 300,000 people potentially looking for child sexual abuse online. We felt there was an awful lot of worrying indicators.
“We are currently seeing a bit of a disconnect between the indicators and the actual evidence of increased online child sexual abuse.”
Ms Hargreaves said that, in 2019, a third of all the content the IWF removed was self-generated content produced by children themselves after they had been groomed.
She said: “80% of that was of girls aged 11 to 13, we were exceptionally worried about children being on their own in their bedrooms and potentially being open to the prey of perpetrators.”
“I think the rest of the world is looking to us in terms of our regulation."
She added: “We are all trying to make sure that if we do see a massive increase, we are able to step up and take action accordingly.”
MS Hargreaves said new legislation to combat online harms is “desperately needed” to end uncertainty.
She said: “We desperately need the Online Harms legislation speeding up. We need to know where we stand. The level of uncertainty is really unhelpful to us all.
“We are still waiting for the Online Harms formal response and the code of practice, and all of us collectively need to know what is going to be within the scope of regulation, what we are going to be required to do. It feels like we are all operating in a kind of unclear space at the moment.”
She added: “I think the rest of the world is looking to us in terms of our regulation and what we do to find ways to mirror it and learn from it.”
Mr Gwynne asked how much concern there is about the potential impact increased encryption on private forums like Facebook may have.
Ms Hargreaves said: “We work very closely with Facebook who take a number of our services to disrupt the distribution of child sexual abuse, and they also support us in many other ways.
“But we are also very very concerned about the intention to encrypt Messenger and the impact that will have on victims of online child sexual abuse.
“We are calling for equivalency. So, basically, we are asking Facebook to give assurances that child protection will not be hampered and that children victims will be protected in some way. And, as yet, none of us have seen any of those assurances.”
"Clearly, if we could just stamp out the problem in the Netherlands, and if they could adopt a different approach, it would have a huge effect, really almost instantaneously."
Tory former minister Tim Loughton asked why so much child sexual abuse is hosted in the Netherlands.
Ms Hargreaves said there is a zero-tolerance approach to content hosted in the UK. She said more than 70% of all known child sexual abuse material is hosted in Holland for a range of reasons, including cheap and fast web hosting.
She also said the country is home to a number of “bullet proof hosters”, and also said there is not legislation in place in the Netherlands to remove the material quickly and effectively.
She said: “We have been working with the Dutch hotline, with the Dutch police, with the Dutch Government via our UK partners at the Home Office and the Police to work collectively to get this removed.
“Clearly, if we could just stamp out the problem in the Netherlands, and if they could adopt a different approach, it would have a huge effect, really almost instantaneously.
“I think it’s a question of them changing a while ethos and approach to removing this kind of content.”
Ms Hargreaves said any pressure which could be brought to bear on the Netherlands by the UK Government would be “hugely gratefully received”.
She said hosting in the Netherlands is a “major problem” but that the Dutch Government has been working hard to combat the issue as well.
Mr Loughton said the UK is “ahead of the game” in its approach to removing child sexual abuse material.