A hotline for reporting suspected child abuse material online had a record month in September, with calls increasing 45%, driven by the shift to working from home and more time spent online, an internet watchdog has said.
The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which identifies child sexual abuse content online, said it processed 15,258 reports from the public in September 2020, a record for the charity and up from 10,514 in September 2019.
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IWF has record month as public reports of child sexual abuse surge [news release]
The Internet Watch Foundation has had a record number of public reports of suspected child sexual abuse material to its hotline, but there are warnings “false reports” could be hampering analysts’ efforts to keep the internet safe.
September saw the highest number of public reports of suspected child sexual abuse material ever received in a single month by the IWF.
The IWF is the UK-based charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse from the internet.
Analysts at the IWF’s hotline then process these reports and assess them so criminal material can be quickly removed from the internet.
Last month, analysts processed 15,258 reports from members of the public. This is 45% more than in September 2019, when 10,514 public reports were received.
This year to sept the IWF has processed a total of 230,520 reports, including tip offs from members of the public, the police, and internet providers. In 2019, itself a record year, IWF analysts processed 260,400 reports.
The IWF is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre, which, along with charities SWGfL and Childnet, works to deliver critical advice, resources, and interventions to help keep everyone, especially children and young people, safe online.
Hotline Director Chris Hughes said the coronavirus lockdown and more people working from home have contributed to an acceleration in the increase of public reports.
“Public reporting has been going up year on year because of a combination of things, but it has definitely accelerated.
“More people spending longer at home, and more people being more active online may mean more people are spotting criminal content and calling it out.”
Mr Hughes, however, said analysts’ time is being taken up dealing with “false” reports of material which is off-remit for the IWF.
Overall public reporting accuracy has reduced from 35% in January to 26% in September, meaning analysts are dealing with thousands of reports which end up not being within the IWF’s remit.
Mr Hughes said: “Of the reports not actioned the bulk of these false or inaccurate reports featured content that is outside of the IWF remit.
“These included images containing potentially provocative slogans on children’s clothing, or reports of legal adult pornography.”
He added: “Over reporting of otherwise legal content by members of the public and activist groups has led to analysts being less productive in the fight against child sexual abuse material due to the increased resource required to process inaccurate and off remit reports.”
Susie Hargreaves, OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said the coronavirus pandemic has made this a particularly busy year for the IWF.
She said: “Our trained analysts view and assess some of the worst material on the internet, and this year we have had to adapt so they can keep coming to work safely.
“These numbers suggest people are being vigilant about what they see online, and are standing up to make the digital world a safer place to live and work in.
“This year has not been easy, but our team is so motivated, and know finding and removing these images is an important step in keeping the internet safe, and protecting children from harm.”
Ms Hargreaves said the increased reporting shows people are calling out criminal content when they see it. However, she urged the public to carefully check the IWF’s reporting guidelines before filing a report as incorrect reports can take up a lot of analysts’ time.
She said: “If people stumble across these images online, they need to know we are a safe place they can turn to. You can report anonymously to us and we will get material analysed and removed.
“What we can’t do is remove material that is not actually against the law or is outside our remit.
“Our analysts still have to look carefully at every single report we receive to make sure there is nothing criminal hidden in there and, if people are reporting inappropriate things to us, it wastes a lot of valuable time they could be spending finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet.
“People must report child sexual abuse, but please check first to make sure what you’re reporting is something we can help with.”
A gold-standard welfare package is in place to look after the analysts’ mental health while performing their challenging role.
The IWF works specifically to find and remove child sexual abuse material online. The IWF website provides a list of different organisations, websites and resources to help the public find the right person to speak to for material which falls outside this remit.
Images and videos of online child sexual abuse can be reported anonymously on the IWF’s new reporting page https://report.iwf.org.uk/en
The public is given this advice when making a report:
- Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF are anonymous.
- Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
- Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
- Do report to the police if you are concerned about a child’s welfare.
- Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
- Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images. The images the IWF can take action on must be pornographic, be grossly offensive, and focus on a child’s genitals or depict sexual activity involving or in the presence of a child. Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.
You can find out more about the IWF’s internet content analysts and the remarkable job they do keeping the internet safe on the IWF’s podcast which can be downloaded here https://www.iwf.org.uk/what-we-do/why-we-exist/podcast