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We must stop the “horrifying” number of people looking at child sexual abuse material by removing it from the internet

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO

Yesterday one of the country’s leading police officers, Dave Thompson, the chief constable of West Midlands police, said that a “horrifying” number of people in the UK are looking at images of child abuse online.

He said the “breathtaking” scale of the problem is so widespread that it is time for society to have a “big discussion” about how it is dealt with, highlighting calls for offenders to be given counselling and rehabilitation instead of jail time.

At the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) our job is to work internationally to make the internet safer by removing images of child sexual abuse. While it is not our role to decide how an offender should be treated, we are the only watchdog in the UK that sees the horrific child sexual abuse imagery sweeping the internet daily – and while it is wonderful that more awareness is being raised, we’ve been telling people of the issue’s magnitude for years.

We’re so proud that since 1996, when our not-for-profit received its first anonymous report, that by working with the internet industry, we’ve reduced hosting in the UK from 18 percent to less than 0.1 percent. While we like to tell people about this wonderful statistic to show that it is possible to one day eradicate this content, we have also had to ensure that people still understand the horrendous scale of the problem. It’s international; just because these horrific images aren’t being hosted in the UK, that doesn’t mean people in the UK aren’t looking at them. While we are working on ever-advancing technologies and working side by side with the internet industry to combat this, resources are needed for organisations fighting to stop child sexual abuse.

Dave Thompson told the Home Affairs select committee: “I am staggered by what I see in terms of the operations the force carries out on the peer-to-peer sharing of images and more sensitive covert policing techniques we carry out…the scale of it…takes my breath away. There is a really big discussion…as a society, about how we deal with this.

"Of course it makes us all deeply uncomfortable to think that people who engage in those activities should in any way escape punishment but the scale of it is absolutely huge."

At the IWF, we know that a real child is abused in each of these images and videos we see. Our focus is to remove those images and videos to prevent the re-victimisation of the child. We believe, as long as the images are removed from the internet, that offenders are stopped from viewing and sharing this content, and that the victims feel they have some kind of relief from knowing their abuse is not being shared.

We’re not able to do covert operations, or work in peer-to-peer networks as this is the police’s domain – rightly – and our work focuses on the open internet, which keeps us busy enough. What’s clear is that by working in partnerships, with the police, the internet industry and similar hotlines across the world, we can hope to eradicate this content and one day, prevent it from being uploaded to the internet, or shared at all.

To find out more about the IWF go to www.iwf.org.uk 

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