UK watchdog blocks record number of child abuse webpages

Alex Hern

More than 100,000 webpages containing child sexual abuse imagery (CSAI) or videos were identified and blocked over the last year by the UK charity tasked with maintaining the nationwide blacklist, an increase of more than a third on the year before.

The Internet Watch Foundation, the charity that does much of the groundwork required to populate the anti-CSAI filters operated by internet service providers such as BT and Sky, says that much of the increase was due to an improvement in the technology it uses to detect and assess criminal content.

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But since each blocked webpage regularly contains more than one abuse image, the total number of unique images discovered and blocked by the charity is higher still: 345,961 individual images were added to the IWF’s watchlist in 2018, with their digital fingerprints shared with technology companies such as Facebook and Google to prevent them being reuploaded in the future.

“Despite us removing more and more images than ever before, and despite creating and using some of the world’s leading technology, it’s clear that this problem is far from being solved,” said the IWF’s chief executive, Susie Hargreaves.

“The cause of the problem is the demand. Unfortunately, and as the police tell us often, there are 100,000 people sitting in the UK right now demanding images of the abuse of children. With this continued demand for images of child rape, it’s a constant battle.”

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The IWF found that the proportion of images hosted in the UK had hit an all-time low: just 0.04% of the content it found and blocked was hosted from a UK address, down from 18% when the IWF began operating in 1996.

While this speaks to the success of British law enforcement, it also shows the difficulties the organisation faces in pushing for lasting change when much of the problem lies overseas. Of the webpages added to the blocklist in 2018, 47% were hosted in the Netherlands, with the US, Russia and Slovakia each contributing more than 10% of the total.

Hargreaves welcomed the government’s Online Harms white paper, first revealed by the Guardian in April, as “a huge opportunity for us all to step up and have a greater impact”. The white paper proposes strong new internet regulations.

Hargreaves said the IWF was now planning to begin working on issues including online grooming of children, recently outlawed after a campaign from the NSPCC, and on how to tackle the live-streaming of child sexual abuse.