Find out who is working to make the internet a safer place
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a charity that works with the police, the internet industry and Government to help block illegal content online.
Established in 1996, it is funded by contributions from the European Union and annual subscriptions from companies such as internet service providers (ISPs). The Foundation is managed by a board of trustees that includes representatives of the internet industry and independent members with expertise in law and other relevant areas.
The IWF has a specific remit to help remove certain types of illegal material (see ‘Reporting illegal content’, below). It has no powers of its own and can’t force companies to remove material; in short, it is not a police-type force for the internet. According to the IWF’s communications director, Sarah Robertson, this has not hampered its work.
Willingness to act
“The greatest success of the IWF is the co-operation we’ve fostered in ISPs, search providers and other industry bodies without the need for legislation,” said Ms Robertson.
Such has been the success that virtually no child abuse images are hosted in the UK. This is because ISPs voluntarily recognise the IWF as the UK’s official ‘notice and takedown’ body, which means that if the IWF notifies an ISP, web hosting company or search provider (such as Google, for example) that a site contains illegal images, the company will act to remove or block it.
This arrangement works only within the UK. Because the majority of illegal material is stored on computers called web servers that are based abroad, the IWF has had to create relationships with other countries’ law enforcement agencies and reporting hotlines.
The main problem facing law enforcement agencies is the speed with which website owners can shift illegal content between servers and countries. This has lead to people thinking the problem is insurmountable. Ms Robertson said: “People think there are millions of these sites but there are only about 3,000 sites active worldwide at any given time.”
The real issue is that material that’s illegal in one country can be legitimate in others, and levels of co-operation vary. This creates a bureaucratic nightmare and drain on police time despite the best intentions of all involved. The IWF has therefore called for the formation of a united global enforcement agency. The IWF also targets people who buy website names – also called domains – that advertise illegal material (for example, a domain such as ‘buychildporn.co.uk’). The UK’s domain name registry, Nominet, administers the list of website names ending in .uk sold by companies called registrars.
As soon as the IWF reports a website name that advertises illegal content to
Nominet, it deregisters the name so the site can’t be found. The UK, though, has
only a few hundred registrars while the US, which hosts four-fifths of the
world’s child abuse images, has many thousands and not all registrars are quick
“Some sites have names that are clearly designed to lure child abusers and I know of one in particular that was registered more than 10 years ago. It simply should not be possible to register such website names,” said Ms Robertson.
Website names that can’t be deregistered are maintained on a list that is shared between ISPs and search engine providers, which blacklist the sites so they don’t appear in search results in the UK.
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