The internet may have become something of lifeline for lockdown, but we mustn’t overlook the risks that such an increase in use poses to some of the most vulnerable in our society. The Internet Watch Foundation, which works to keep the internet free of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), has released a warning that, due to school closures in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, they feared an increase in youngsters being groomed online and coerced into creating CSAM. As around a third of all CSAM is created and posted by the children themselves, the increased time they will now be spending alone and online could see these incidences rising.
It’s a sobering reminder that our connected world brings challenges as well as benefits, with the IWF taking a weighty responsibility for meeting some of the former to ensure young people can reap the latter without fear of harm. At Nominet, we are proud to have worked closely with such an important organisation for the past two decades.
This month, IWF published its annual report, sharing the stats of the past year during which the team of just 13 analysts processed a record 260, 426 reports of suspected CSAM, representing an increase of 14% on the previous year. Of these reports, 132,730 were confirmed to be of images or videos of children being sexually abused, a 25% increase from 2018.
We are fortunate to have this world leading organisation based here in the UK. The IWF are a technology enabled charity, using their understanding of the internet ecosystem to work successfully with industry – supported by Government and law enforcement – to achieve their mission: eliminate child sexual abuse imagery online. They operate in an area of legal clarity with strong analytical processes and quality control, as well as external independent review processes. When the IWF was founded in 1996, the UK hosted 18% of the global total; in 2019 this figure was just 0.1%. With over 99% of content identified as now being hosted outside of the UK, it is essential we see global collaboration on this issue.
So what is the nitty-gritty of Nominet’s work for IWF over the past year? During 2019, there was no activity identified in .wales or .cymru whatsoever; and we received no requests for domain suspensions from IWF, either for the Welsh domains or across .UK. That said, there were 141 reports of CSAM in the .UK namespace. All of those images and videos have been taken down and, as the URLs in question were associated with domains that are otherwise unrelated to CSAM, those domains were not suspended. Usually, the CSAM identified in .UK relates to image search results, image hosting websites, or a compromised domain – in which case the registrant isn’t responsible for uploading the abuse images, although they should perhaps reconsider the strength of their security measures to prevent others using their domain for malicious purposes.
As an industry comparison, of the unique domains identified by IWF in 2019, the number within our .UK namespace accounted for just 0.106% of all identified CSAM. Contrast this with the worst performing TLD, which accounted for 52% of all identified CSAM worldwide, then we have reason to believe our national namespace is one of the cleanest in the world and our processes are sound – though we must always remain vigilant.
In addition to dealing with reports from members of the public, IWF also works with a number of organisations to track down CSAM on the net, one of which is Nominet. As the UK’s national registry, we search across newly-registered domains for a list of keywords known to be associated with CSAM, supplied by IWF. When matches are found, IWF will investigate, checking for any matches to their database of known CSAM images. During our search of keywords from IWF, 97,697 webpages were crawled throughout 2019, resulting in 669,731 images subsequently being checked by IWF. The great news is that no instances of CSAM were found in this check.
A crucial fact in our work at Nominet is that we won’t suspend a domain without a specific instruction, supported by evidence, from a local enforcement agency. It is not Nominet’s job to serve as judge and jury – indeed we aren’t qualified to do so – but we have a responsibility to monitor our namespace closely to address criminality across the .UK domain, and to act appropriately once we are on formal notice of criminality.
Our work with IWF doesn’t end with the checks and searches. Perhaps just as crucially, we support the charity financially in addition to our membership fees – most recently via our Countering Online Harm Fund – in their work to develop their digital tools, ensuring they have the latest tech innovations at their fingertips to assist them in their work. This matters, explained IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves OBE when we spoke to her, because it helps IWF to speed up their processes and takes some of the tasks away from human eyes and into algorithms. That said, many of their checks remain manual and their staff should be duly, deservedly applauded for all they do to protect the vulnerable.
Sadly, the internet will probably never be rid of CSAM and IWF will therefore never become obsolete; the recent pandemic has illustrated how much the incidence of CSAM online can be influenced by external, global happenings. What can we all do to help? If you’re a parent, try to be more vigilant and supportive of your own children – perhaps even having a careful discussion about potential risks and the importance of online safety, depending on their age. Others can donate to the IWF or be proactive in reporting any materials they stumble across unintentionally online to ensure it can be removed as swiftly as possible, and those involved protected. This is a small way in which we can all support IWF and yet another way we can help to keep each other safe in these challenging times.
Find out more about IWF’s work over 2019 in their annual report.