‘Epidemic’ of child abuse images found on open web

There is an “epidemic” of child sexual abuse images on the open web, according to the UK charity which works to get the material taken down.

A record number of reports about child sexual exploitation (CSE) images were processed by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in 2019, with more than 260,000 reports, including tip-offs from the public.

This marked a 14% increase on the year before. Of the reports, more than 132,000 showed images or videos of children being sexually abused.

That compares with just over 105,000 reports the year before, an increase of 26%, and each report contains at least one – but sometimes thousands of CSE images and videos.

According to the charity, the reports it received “equates to millions of images and videos” and its chief executive Susie Hargreaves OBE said it was “really shocking… that it’s all available on the open internet, or ‘clear web’.

“That’s the everyday internet that we all use to do our shopping, search for information, and obtain our news,” she added.

“Obviously, we know there’s child sexual abuse content on the dark web but right now it’s really a case of saying we’ve got to get a grip on the epidemic on our open internet, and now is the time to do it.”

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Last year, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid vowed to do more to stop child abuse online.

The government proposed creating a new regulator which would fine web companies that failed to protect users, and possibly block offending websites from being accessed in the UK.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime and predators who share or view indecent images of children are complicit in this horrific abuse and can expect the full weight of the law to come down on them.

“We’re bringing forward ground-breaking legislation to protect the public from online harms, including children and the most vulnerable users and make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”

Susie Hargreaves OBE, the CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation
Image: Susie Hargreaves OBE, the CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation

The manager for the IWF hotline said that the charity’s analysts investigated every report which comes in, although not all of them lead to CSE material.

“Far too many people are wasting our time,” they said, noting that false reports in 2018 cost the charity £150,000 – worth more than four years’ worth of analyst time.

Ms Hargreaves added: “As the government considers new regulatory legislation on online harms, this presents a real opportunity to do just that.

“Child sexual abuse is an horrific topic for people to talk about, but as a society we have got to take on board a heavy dose of reality and face up to what’s right in front of us,” added Ms Hargreaves.

“IWF is a uniquely-placed service working to improve the internet for people across the world. Our partnerships with police and technology companies are essential to stop this abuse happening.

“Whilst we’re investing in the right technology and staff to battle this online epidemic, it is still really shocking to see the number of reports going up.

“It might seem like a needle in a haystack, but every single image is of a real child. As long as there’s one child’s image out there, we will never stop removing this content,” Ms Hargreaves added.

Anonymously access the IWF’s new reporting page here: https://report.iwf.org.uk/en

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