“Some of my friends can’t bear to hear about my work,” admits Susie Hargreaves OBE, “but I love my job.” She is CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the organisation – of which Nominet is a long-standing member – that works to minimise the availability of online sexual abuse content, with a particular focus on child sexual abuse.
“It’s true that we deal with some of the worst things you can imagine, but I also work with some of the best people I’ve ever met, in a position to make a tangible difference to the world,” says Susie. “It’s varied and interesting. I’m always facing new challenges and working with fantastic people. I count myself incredibly fortunate.”
Susie, who received her OBE for services to online safety in 2016, has been with the IWF for eight years and modestly suggests, “I probably wouldn’t get this role if I applied now. It was a much smaller organisation when I joined – just 17 of us – and my background is in management, with limited experience with technology.”
That isn’t to say she wasn’t a highly capable candidate with a wealth of interesting experience on her CV, including a stint with the Society of Dyers and Colorists and as Director of Cultureworks. Such variety stems from the fact that young Susie, growing up as one of nine in Yorkshire, had little ambition for a particular career: “I never had a calling for anything specific; I wish I did,” she says. “I just always took the most interesting option available.” If there is one connecting theme, it is young people and the charity sector; “I like jobs where I feel I can make a difference.”
That said, some of her life choices were directed by becoming the main breadwinner for a family of four; her husband is the actor turned director Marcus Romer. “I only took eight weeks off after my first child because we needed the money,” she recalls. “My children just accepted that I was a working mum and I did the best I could with what suited us at the time.”
Being a woman in senior positions has not always been easy. “I’ve had some experiences,” she says diplomatically. “I once had a board member tell me he wouldn’t take advice from a little girl. And you had to almost pretend you didn’t have children at home when you came back from maternity leave. Often the sexism was subtle, which makes it harder to call out. The biggest challenge has always been negotiating a salary. Somehow if a woman wants more because she is supporting the whole family – like I was – it was greedy.”
She is quick to point out that her current organisation has been exemplar. “On my management team there are four women and only one man,” she says. “But we always hire the best person for the job.” These are just some of the new recruits she has seen arrive over the years; the company has grown to 42 employees, including an in-house tech team to ensure the IWF has the latest tools at its disposal. The IWF can now assess over 1,000 URLs per week and has reviewed over 700,000 reports in the past two decades, of which 281,781 depicted child sexual abuse.
Technology and innovation play key roles in the work of the IWF. “Currently we’re looking at introducing crawlers and classifiers to help us automate the work we do and limit the amount of time staff have to view images and videos,” she explains. Some of this will be supported by Nominet’s Countering Online Harm Fund, an annual £100,000 investment to ensure the IWF can continue to access new technologies to improve their effectiveness and keep digital pace with the wrongdoers.
“But technology is not the only important aspect of the IWF,” Susie adds. “Equally important are education – for young people and for the wider society about what is acceptable – and policy and legislation. We need all these things to come together to really drive our work.”
This inevitably involves collaborating with many – some powerful and political – stakeholders, as well as engaging with similar agencies worldwide to share best practice. Encouragingly, the UK is a world-leader in both hosting and removal of content: according to a report from 2018, just 0.04% of all material taken down had been hosted in the UK, compared to 47% being hosted in the Netherlands.
“We’re doing well, but we still have lots to learn from the other countries,” says Susie. “It’s good to hear different tactics and share successes. For example, Scandinavian countries and Canada are very good at consumer awareness campaigns and can be a lot more daring than the UK in terms of what they will say to citizens about this issue.”
The borderless nature of the internet compounds what is already a challenging and endless task, and there are those who suggest such zealous activity in the UK is simply pushing the explicit content elsewhere, like the Netherlands. Susie is quick to counter such an argument: “We need to get to a stage when all countries are blocking it – then there is nowhere for it to go.”
Can the problem ever truly be eradicated? “I’d love to believe it could, but realistically it just won’t. People ask me, ‘what’s the point then?’, but if I save just one child from abuse by taking just one picture down, that makes all the difference. These youngsters are having their childhoods stolen by adults that just don’t care. It really makes me very angry.”
Technology, however, doesn’t take the blame. “I wouldn’t turn back the clock and rid the world of tech,” Susie says. “Yes, it brings problems, but it’s also an incredible force for good and a phenomenal enabler, empowering so many people across the world. What we need now is the right regulation and control to allow it to develop safely.”