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apComms Inquiry on Internet Traffic

Submitted in May 2009

1      Introduction

1.1   The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Communications’ inquiry on internet traffic. Reflecting our area of knowledge and involvement, we are responding to question no. 4: “Is the current global approach to dealing with child sexual abuse images working effectively? If not, then how should it be improved?”

1.2  The IWF was established in 1996 to provide a UK internet hotline for the public and IT professionals to report potentially illegal content within our remit and to be the UK ‘notice and take-down’ body for that content. We are a self-regulatory body, funded by the internet industry and the EU, working to minimise the availability of child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world and criminally obscene content and content which incites racial hatred hosted in the UK.

1.3   In addition to our core ‘notice and take-down’ function, which covers non-members as well as members within the UK, we offer a range of services to our internet industry members: provision of a dynamic list of URLs relating to child sexual abuse content hosted outside the UK; provision of a list of keywords and phrases to search providers to improve the quality of search returns; notifying national and international newsproviders and ISPs of those newsgroups which regularly contain or advertise the availability of child sexual abuse content; and providing a Best Practice Guide to handling potentially illegal indecent images of children for use by IT and HR professionals to ensure company policies and procedures are consistent with the Protection of Children Act 1978. Further information about the IWF, including our Annual Report 2008 can be found on our website.

2      Success of the partnership approach

2.1   Our self-regulatory approach, allied with our positive partnerships with law enforcement agencies, Government, international partners and the public, has led to considerable successes. In particular, less than 1% of child sexual abuse content known to the IWF has apparently been hosted in the UK since 2003, down from 18% in 1997. There has been extensive deployment by ISPs of our URL list, with approximately 95% of residential internet broadband customers in the UK being protected from the potentially illegal content it relates to. Efforts continue to make this list available to more ISPs so that more internet users benefit from its deployment. Also, our international partnership approach has contributed to the significant reduction in the number of websites containing child sexual abuse content; in 2008 alone the number of these sites fell by nearly 10% to 1536. This, we consider represents a problem of a scale which can be targeted and significantly disrupted through international efforts.

2.2   We have also witnessed a significant increase in support from the online industry since our inception. This has seen our membership grow ten-fold over the last ten years, from 9 funding members in 1999 to over 90 industry members currently.

2.3   The multi-faceted approach adopted by the IWF has been successful in both minimising the availability of potentially illegal internet content within our remit and adding value to the work of our law enforcement partners in the UK as the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse material is hosted outside the jurisdiction of UK Police Services. The IWF works with international partners to have content investigated and removed whilst UK police agencies concentrate on their priority activities in relation to detecting offenders and rescuing victims from sexual exploitation.

2.4   In making this submission, we would like to re-state our support of the development of similar public/private partnerships internationally as this would make a significant impact on tackling the problems of child sexual abuse globally. In so doing, we are pleased to note the commitment made in the 2009 Prague declaration on a new European approach for safer internet for children “to ensure cooperation between public authorities and the private sector, in particular internet service providers, to explore the possibility to remove illegal child abuse material at source and where this may not be possible, to identify and block, disrupt or make more difficult access from the EU to websites containing child sexual abuse material”.

3      Challenges

3.1   From our experience of tackling the problems associated with child sexual abuse content online, we are aware of a number of issues which may need further consideration within the context of this inquiry, including the increasingly varied routes and technologies allowing access to child sexual abuse images such as peer to peer networks, services that conceal website locations, signposting to content from legitimate free hosting websites, newsgroups, commercial operations selling indecent images of children and services where offenders trade and swap images publicly. Details of specific issues particularly relevant to the work of the IWF are detailed below:

3.2   Notice and take-down schemes: As implied by the Prague declaration statement (above), it is not always possible to remove child sexual abuse material at source. There are a number of reasons for this including:

  • the lack of notice and take down schemes in many countries;
  • the lack of international harmonisation in relation to child sexual abuse legislation (e.g.: differing ages of childhood and concepts of indecency) and different methods used by law enforcement agencies to collect evidence to satisfy their legal systems;
  • the financial and legal risks to a national hotline organisation issuing a notices outside its own country; and
  • the ease with which sites can move between hosting providers and jurisdictions.

3.2.1 It is pleasing to note that a recent INHOPE (The International Association of Internet Hotlines) announcement indicates its membership has been extended to 35 hotlines in 31 countries. However this also clearly shows the large number of countries which are not covered by a hotline reporting function; in addition many national hotlines are not responsible for issuing ‘takedown notices’.

3.2.2 The proposal for an EU Council framework decision on combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography calls for the definition of child pornography to be clarified and brought closer to that contained in international instruments. However, the draft definition being put forward may be significantly different from that being applied currently or being proposed by individual EU States. For example, it differs from the wording included within the Coroners and Justice Bill in relation to non-photographic images of children.

3.2.3 The 2009/10 work programme for the IWF includes consideration of whether the IWF could directly give notices to providers hosting child sexual abuse content in countries which do not have INHOPE-partner hotlines and for issuing advisory notices to international ISPs. (Extending take-down procedures to INHOPE-partner countries would be contrary to the IWF’s funding agreement with the EU.)The scoping exercise will consider the legal risks of issuing notices in other countries, the potential impact on law enforcement activities in those countries, the impact on complex network of relationships on which international co-operation relies, as well as the financial implications of a primarily UK-funded membership organisation carrying the costs of activity taking place outside of the UK.

3.3   Blocking: In instances when child sexual abuse images cannot be taken down, access to it may be blocked at a network level, as well as through filtering at the end-user level.  Network-level blocking may not be fully successful in preventing access to potentially illegal child sexual abuse content and the approach contains a number of risks to the organisations involved in blocking. The IWF’s experience has shown that there are some specific challenges when considering the effectiveness of this approach to blocking.  These include:

  • Blocking can be circumnavigated by those determined to access child sexual abuse material, particularly by – but not limited to – the use of ’tunnelling’ or proxy servers
  • Internet users can share images using P2P technology as an alternative to hosting them on a server accessible via the open internet
  • Technical issues may prevent blocking working effectively or the block may have unintended negative consequences; an example of this being the relatively recent blocking of a Wikipedia URL which for customers of some ISPs prevented them from being able to edit Wikipedia
  • ‘Overblocking’ may occur, with collateral damage potentially resulting – instances where this may occur are various but could include the blocking of text as well as images or the blocking of access to a whole site rather than a specific URL
  • Comprehensive but targeted blocking requires ‘good quality’ public reporting, accurate investigation and regular updating

3.3.1The IWF’s recent experience with Wikipedia raised some unique and complex issues.  The IWF Board and Funding Council have begun a programme of work to explore these issues in more depth and consider how we can minimise any negative impact of blocking and make this approach more effective and transparent to end users.

3.4    It should be noted that both blocking and notice and take-down schemes are disruption tactics in relation to commercial child sexual abuse distribution organisations. No single approach is a ‘silver bullet’ that prevents child sexual abuse images being found on the internet; rather, a combination of approaches make up the overall strategy. The de-listing of domain names that sell child sexual abuse images is another disruption tactic and one that may benefit from the fact that as few as 10 registries or registrars accounted for over 75% of all commercial child sexual abuse domains known to the IWF during 2008. During that year, the IWF made good progress in working with registries and registrars to disrupt the availability of the domain names of commercial child sexual abuse websites. Similarly, INHOPE are considering developing a formal submission to ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) calling on it and its subordinate domain name administration bodies to adopt policies and procedures aimed at disabling web sites which predominantly contain child sexual abuse material. The IWF is working with INHOPE to develop this initiative.

3.5   It is, we consider, vital that disruption tactics and technical solutions are deployed within the wider context of tackling the problem of child sexual abuse at its source. Such an approach requires the timely and informed involvement of a range of organisations, including law enforcement agencies, globally. The IWF works in partnership with such organisations and we are committed to sharing data and expertise to encourage national and international responses to combating this content. We ensure we inform law enforcement agencies and international hotlines about the nature of child sexual abuse domains and how the activities of those who operate them can move from country to country. During 2008, for example, we were able to provide specific data and intelligence to 22 police forces and agencies in the UK in support of potential prosecutions. An element of the information we seek to pass on is our understanding of the payment mechanisms which are critical to the business model of commercial child sexual abuse organisations. We are thus pleased to include payment mechanism companies within our membership. We support the new European Financial Coalition to track and disrupt the commercial element behind child sexual abuse images, and consider such developments reflect the requirement for international partnerships to be developed.

4      Conclusion

4.1   To conclude, the IWF considers that the approach it has adopted has been successful in tackling the problem of child sexual abuse images within the UK and that it has developed successful partnerships that can be built on internationally. For an approach to be fully effective it must be based on the development of positive partnership working and a commitment to address the problems at source. We would thus like to re-iterate our desire for the global issue of child sexual abuse images to be tackled using a combination of the following approaches in parallel:

  1. Concerted international law enforcement action, in partnership with national hotlines to address the multi-jurisdictional challenges of this global problem;
  2. Public/private partnership involving service providers working, for example, through a system of self-regulation;
  3. National notice and take-down schemes to remove criminally illegal child sexual abuse images;
  4. Promotion of filtering services to prevent accidental access to websites containing child sexual abuse content;
  5. Partnerships with domain name registries and registrars to de-list domain names that sell child sexual abuse images; and
  6. Sharing data, intelligence and tactics internationally to combat the cross-border nature of child sexual abuse content on the internet.
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