While many found workloads – or even jobs themselves – dwindled during the pandemic, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) faced the opposite challenge. As the nation stayed at home and almost all activity was confined to the internet, the body responsible for identifying and removing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online was, sadly, dealing with a rapid increase in reports.
In September 2020, the IWF saw record numbers of public reports of CSAM – 45% up on the previous September – which they put down to the increasing amount of time people were spending on the internet. There was also another worrying trend: in the first six months of 2020, the IWF noticed a disturbing rise in the amount of children being groomed into filming their own abuse. Once again, an increased amount of time spent at home, with interactions only available via digital devices, is a likely cause.
With those two news stories in mind, it would be easy to feel apprehensive about what was to be revealed in the IWF Annual Report for 2020, which has recently been published. Encouragingly, despite the increased workload on the staff and the rise in public reports, the IWF concludes that the past year has been a relatively ‘healthy’ one in terms of CSAM hosting here in the UK, where rates remain low and the UK internet companies strongly support and cooperate with the IWF.
The report shows that while the UK hosted 18% of the global total in 1996 when IWF was founded, in 2020 that percentage was down to 0.1%. For us at Nominet, the picture remains encouraging. Of the 212 unique domains identified throughout the year, the .UK domain accounted for just 0.0071% of those identified as CSAM. There were only 11 reports of CSAM in .UK, a noticeable reduction on last year’s figure of 141. On further investigation, no domain suspensions were necessary however. For example, a report may relate to an image that had appeared in the image’s results found by search engines, which aren’t hosted by these sites and the more appropriate intervention is for the search engine to deindex those results.
The IWF is highly effective at working with the whole internet ecosystem and has collaborative relationships with many of the key internet infrastructure companies and registries worldwide. Typically, the IWF notifies the hosting provider with the power to delete the video or image that has been identified and can contact the relevant local law enforcement agencies. All images and videos associated with .UK domains were removed in this way – by reaching out to the jurisdictions in question – and deindexing from search results and web archives in order to remain offline permanently.
While the UK is known for being incredibly responsible in this critical area of online harm, the report highlights a problem on the rise elsewhere, with an increase in the number of top level domains (TLDs) being used for CSAM: 153,369 URLs across 5,590 domains hosted in 59 countries. This is a 13% increase on 2019, when URLs were found across 4,956 domains. The report also notes a continued rise in the use of new generic TLDs being used for CSAM. Some are even being created for this sole purpose, prompting IWF to create a new category to monitor these through 2021.
Another worrying trend has prompted a new campaign from IWF: Gurls out Loud. Backed by the UK Home Office and Microsoft, the campaign has sprung from new analysis showing that 11-13 year old girls are increasingly at risk of being groomed and coerced into filming their own abuse. Of 68,000 cases of CSAM IWF investigated, almost half (44%) were self-generated – and 80% of these were from this vulnerable female demographic. Gurls out Loud seeks to raise awareness of this growing risk with both the young girls themselves and their parents, sharing advice on how to stay safe. At Nominet we hope to be able to support the campaign and share some of the key education messages for parents, including talking with your child and establishing ground rules around their use of technology to help them to stay safe.
We have long had a positive working relationship with IWF and support their efforts to identify and remove CSAM. For example, part of IWF’s analysis involves running their crawler through .UK domain names to check for known images and videos using hashes – a kind of ‘digital fingerprint’. In 2020 a total of 5,531,661 webpages were crawled in .UK, .cymru and .wales. This identified one CSAM image which was then removed by the hosting provider.
Digital tools such as these are an important asset to the IWF as by automating some of their processes, they can increase efficiency and scale, reducing the time IWF staff might spend reviewing websites and potentially viewing disturbing imagery. Nominet is proud to have been able to fund some of these automation tools, most recently via our Countering Online Harm fund, and we look forward to doing more to help them improve the efficiency of their processes and drive their mission onwards.
Over what has been a difficult year for many, we are grateful for the incredible work and achievements of the IWF. Being able to deem the UK namespace relatively ‘healthy’ is a big win in a tough area and testament to the efforts of a dedicated team, who deal with the worst content on the internet and protect the most vulnerable. While its work never stops, I hope the IWF can take this opportunity to reflect on the huge difference it makes to all of us. We also hope young girls and parents will heed the important messages being shared about online grooming to help reduce the number of victims in the year ahead.