Millions of attempts to access child sexual abuse online during lockdown
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and its partners blocked at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse during lockdown
More than eight million attempts to access child sexual abuse material online during the coronavirus lockdown have been made in the UK, with experts warning the figure could be even higher.
The IWF – with the help of its industry partners – has successfully blocked and filtered at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse during a one-month period while the UK was locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic*.
The IWF warns the UK must “face up” to the problem of demand for criminal content from British predators and is appealing to companies operating in the UK, which do not provide protections, to step up. This comes after the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed it believes there are a minimum of 300,000 individuals in the UK posing a sexual threat to children, either through physical “contact” abuse or online.
The IWF is the UK charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.
They are now urgently calling for more internet companies to join them in fighting the spread of online child sexual abuse.
The data was provided to the IWF by three companies which use the IWF’s URL list. It shows that in the UK alone, there were more than 8.8 million attempts to access child sexual abuse imagery on URLs in just one month.
The IWF’s URL List is used by internet companies to block access to sites known to contain child sexual abuse material which is hosted outside of the UK. It prevents people from stumbling across that imagery and protects those victims whose images are circulating online.
A notice is served to the internet user each time an attempt to access a URL on the list is made. This notice makes them aware of why they have been blocked from accessing the content, and provides details of the Stop It Now! Get Help website. Since 2015, more than 21,000 people have sought help after seeing this notice.
Susie Hargreaves, CEO of the IWF, said more companies should use the list to keep people safe.
She said: “We need to face up to the fact there is a demand in the UK for this material. Given that this data comes from just three UK tech companies, 8.8million attempts is a conservative picture and the scale is much bigger – possibly millions more.
"The fact so many of these attempts have been blocked suggests the scale of the issue of public demand is quite staggering, and something we need to remain vigilant against"
“Whilst the majority of the UK’s internet connections are filtered by this list, there are still companies operating in the UK which offer no such protections. If we’re serious about creating a safer internet, everyone needs to step up.
“While the UK hosts less than half a percent of all child sexual abuse material in the world, UK sex predators are helping fuel the world-wide trade in some of the most depraved content on the internet.
“Anyone providing internet services should be doing everything they can to keep the users on their network safe and to protect them. Of course, the internet doesn’t respect borders, so it’s key that companies worldwide step up as well.”
Ms Hargreaves said the list – which is updated twice a day – has stopped millions of accidental and deliberate attempts to access this horrendous material.
She added: “It’s important to disrupt the availability of these images and videos, and it helps give victims reassurance that the footage of their sexual abuse is not being passed around and enjoyed by these people.”
This is the first time the IWF has had this kind of data made available from ISPs. The IWF provides the data in the URL List but it is up to companies how to implement it.
Ms Hargreaves added: “This is the first time we have had this data made available to us and it just goes to show how important the URL list is. Without it, child sexual abuse material would have been accessed millions of times in this period alone.
"Increasing numbers of internet companies joining the fight against the spread of online child sexual abuse are key if we are to catch predators and protect more children in the UK and abroad."
“While we have no like for like data to compare it to, the fact so many of these attempts have been blocked suggests the scale of the issue of public demand is quite staggering, and something we need to remain vigilant against.
“The public is a vital part of helping us keep the internet safe and protect victims of child sexual abuse. Reports from members of the public help us find and remove this harmful material. Anyone who stumbles across child sexual abuse material online should do the right thing and report it to us.”
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs' Council Lead for Child Protection, said: "The crucial work of the IWF and its partners continues throughout this troubling time. Its most recent successful efforts to block millions of attempts to access child abuse imagery reveal that the need to confront the disturbing volume of online predators in the UK is as urgent as ever.
"Anyone viewing such material online is a predator and their crime is not victimless. Police in the UK lead one of the most robust responses to online child abuse in the world and we are responding to a rise in this abhorrent crime by searching more properties, arresting more offenders and safeguarding more children than ever before. This is a national priority and chief officers meet regularly to ensure coordination in the nationwide response to these crimes.
"Despite this strong enforcement action, the availability of these images continues to grow at an alarming rate and it has long been recognised that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
"These figures show just how vital it is for tech companies to block sexual images of under 18s accessed using their resources or hosted on their platforms"
"There has been year on year increases in reports from technology companies, internet services providers, and other law enforcement agencies of people accessing indecent images of children. The IWF's most recent results, sadly, reiterate this and increasing numbers of internet companies joining the fight against the spread of online child sexual abuse are key if we are to catch predators and protect more children in the UK and abroad."
Deborah Denis, CEO of Stop It Now! UK and Ireland, said: “These figures show just how vital it is for tech companies to block sexual images of under 18s accessed using their resources or hosted on their platforms. And in blocking access, they should also remind visitors of the illegality of these images whilst also directing them to sources of help to cease this behaviour.
“The Stop It Now! confidential helpline and online self-help resources support thousands of people each year who are worried about their own or someone else's online sexual behaviour. By facing up to their actions and getting professional help, people can change for the better and children can be protected from harm.
“The lockdown means that many people are spending more time online. Lots will be engaging in risky or illegal behaviour, including viewing sexual images of under 18s.
“Without tech companies intervening when behaviour crosses a line and advertising where to find help to change, fewer people will face up to the seriousness of their behaviour and the huge consequences of their actions, resulting in more children being harmed."
The IWF’s URL list is used by major companies all over the world to keep millions of users safe. Anyone looking to join the IWF in the fight against online child sexual abuse material can find out what they can do to make the internet safer here https://www.iwf.org.uk/become-a-member
Notes to editors:
*The 8.8million hits is a figure compiled from aggregated data provided to IWF by three companies which implement the URL list across their UK networks. Each provided one month’s worth of figures relating to the hits the URL list had received between 1-30 April, 16 March to 16 April, and 26 March to 23 April respectively.
Stop It Now! UK and Ireland is a project of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, the only UK-wide child protection charity dedicated solely to preventing child sexual abuse. Since then, more than 46,000 people have contacted the Stop It Now! helpline for support with all aspects of child sexual abuse prevention offline and online, including more than 5,000 people in the last year. Its Get Help website, for people worried about their own or someone else’s online behaviour, has had more than 450,000 users since it launched in 2015.