For over 20 years, the Internet Watch Foundation has been at the forefront of eradicating Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) from the world wide web through a solution that allows industry players to block Web sites with objectionable content. Recently, the Indian Government mandated Internet companies to use the IWF solution to block CSAM but the move has been met with some resistance by the service providers. Susie Hargreaves, CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation, in an e-mail interview with BusinessLine, spoke about the obstacles that IWF faces and the options before Indian ISPs to subscribe to IWF’s services. Excerpts:
How do you see India’s efforts to deal with child sexual abuse imagery so far? What more can be done?
India is at the start of a really important journey. We consider the first important step is establishing a place where ordinary citizens can report online child sexual abuse imagery. This has now been achieved.
It’s also a pioneering move of the Indian Government to offer protection to its online citizens by implementing a blocking system so that people are protected from accidentally stumbling across such criminal imagery.
Awareness raising of the issues, and how each person can help stop the spread of this imagery is now of the utmost importance.
There also needs to be recognition by the wider internet industry — not just ISPs — of how they can play their part to protect victims, protect their users and create a safe internet service.
You have offered your solution to 5 top gateways in India. What has been their response to your offer?
The five ISPs who have been approached to implement the solution are Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Globalcom, Sify Technologies and BSNL.
We’ve had discussions with Tata; responded to an information request from Reliance Globalcom; and are hoping to speak with Sify Technologies very soon.
Bharti Airtel and BSNL are yet to respond to us. We will not give up; we’ve offered them the same opportunity to protect their customers and India’s ISPs.
We are given to understand that Indian ISPs have told the Indian government that they find the membership fee expensive. How do you respond to this?
We’re not expecting all of India’s ISPs to join IWF in membership — just the five companies which deliver the Internet into India at landing stage level. If the URL List is used by just those companies — who are huge global-scale firms — all of India’s ISPs, and therefore citizens, are protected.
Our membership fees are set by our members who are all from the Internet industry and include Google, Microsoft, Telefonica, Facebook and Vodafone. They’re based upon an ability-to-pay formula. We also have smaller companies in membership, with few employees. The fees they agreed start at £1,040 and rise to £78,030.
Our initial assessment is that each of the five companies is at the top end of the fee scale, but we need to talk to them to ensure this is correct. If it is, we’re offering an introductory membership fee of £50,000, however, if their metrics indicate a lower fee, then of course they’ll pay less. We’re a not-for-profit organisation and all our 130 Members voluntarily contribute because they want to be seen to do the right thing.
In a letter written to the Telecom Department, ISPAI, the industry association representing all the leading Internet players in the country, has said it does not want to engage with IWF on a mandatory basis as it leads to a monopoly and restricts its options. Do you agree that the Indian government should not restrict it to any one agency?
With 20 years’ experience, and large-scale global deployment of the URL List, which is trusted by the world’s biggest Internet companies, the IWF are offering the best solution to protect India’s citizen’s right now.
It was a brave and pioneering step by the Government to make a start on this journey.
Our core aim is to prevent the distribution of child sexual abuse images and videos on the Internet and we’re supportive of any high-standard solutions which can do this.
Given that IWF is a not for profit organisation, ISPAI has sought a mechanism whereby it can take a single licence from IWF, which can then be used by all ISPs. Is this a reasonable demand?
We considered this, and whilst a single licence to cover all ISPs sounds straightforward, it’s anything but. We’ve proposed the simplest, most cost-effective and time-saving method for India.
Given the incredibly sensitive nature of the information on the URL List, we’d still need an agreement with every single ISP – more than 100 – which is just unworkable. There would be multiple contacts needed, at each organisation, and all ISPs would need to configure their systems in order to use the URL List causing unnecessary cost in terms of technology and time.
Our alternative is simple. Just five companies, which control the entry points of India’s Internet, blocking at gateway level so all ISPs are automatically covered. Just five agreements, compared to hundreds, and just five companies with the technological means to implement the list. It could be a solution in place within weeks, rather than months and years.
Should the Indian government offer financial support to ISPs to meet the expense since this is for a larger social cause or do you think the industry should take up responsibility?
The IWF’s model of self-regulation is celebrated globally. It marries social cause with companies doing what’s right. It lifts the burden from governments and therefore ordinary tax payers — not all of whom access the Internet. In our experience, commercial, profit-making companies, who provide the means by which these horrific abuse pictures are distributed are often happy to step up and do what’s right.
Could you give example of a country which is using your solution and has been able to limit child sexual abuse imagery.
The UK is world’s best example of tackling child sexual abuse imagery within its borders. In 1996, 18 per cent of the world’s known child sexual abuse imagery was hosted in the UK; it’s now less than 0.1 per cent due to the way the internet industry collaborates, through IWF, on this issue.
British ISP, BT, was one of the first companies to start using the URL List. They reported that around 40,000 hits per day were received against the URLs on our list. That’s 40,000 times they were preventing and protecting people from seeing the criminal imagery of sexually abused children. India operates on a far bigger scale and the benefits could be far-reaching.
Are you open to a discussion with Indian ISPs to see how best the issues can be resolved? If such a discussion happens what can you bring on the table in addition to what you have already offered ? Can IWF help Indian ISPs raise funds if required?
We are of course open to a discussion with Indian ISPs and have tried on numerous occasions with ISPAI. We have multiple different and highly suitable services to offer a range of India’s internet companies and once a company is in membership with IWF, they can access every service we offer.
To use our URL List, just the five gateway companies need to join in membership. Therefore, there’s no cost to the rest of India’s ISPs – they’ll automatically be covered. However, if any ISPs wanted to work with us directly, we’d be very happy about this and can speak to them about fees. They shouldn’t assume it will cost a lot as they might be smaller and therefore their fee will be suited to their ability to pay.
Everyone agrees that content related to child pornography/sexual abuse should be eradicated yet it is prevalent. What are the big challenges in general that you think should be addressed to make this a reality
There are several big challenges which make this a unique issue.
Firstly, the internet is global and therefore the issue of hosting child sexual abuse imagery in one country, is an issue for all citizens who have internet access around the world. There are no geographical borders. This brings me to my second challenge.
The speed of technological change and the ever-more sophisticated methods employed by some offenders – who are either distributing this horrific imagery for financial gain, or because of their own self-interest – means we constantly need to adapt, develop and grow our expertise.
Both challenges point to one solution: we need to foster positive international partnerships. One organisation, or one government, or one sector of the online industry cannot tackle this alone. It’s all about partnership working and cooperation.
IWF has been at the forefront of dealing with this issue. How successful are you globally with your platform?
The IWF is one of the most successful hotlines in the world. We were founded in 1996 by the online industry after the UK was found to host 18 per cent of the world’s child sexual abuse imagery. Due to our self-regulatory, partnership approach, it’s now less than 0.1 per cent.
As well as providing a safe and confidential hotline for the public to report criminal imagery, we provide multiple technical tools and services to internet companies to keep their networks safer and disrupt the distribution of child sexual abuse imagery.
We’ve established reporting portals in 16 countries, including India, and will be developing another 30 over the next three years in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Our successful model of self-regulation is globally recognised and we identify by far the largest majority child sexual abuse URLs to the INHOPE (International Association of Internet Hotlines) database, which unites similar hotlines across the world.
You partnered recently with an Indian NGO called Aarambh, how successful has that been? (in terms or reporting of cases and decreasing CSAM content from India?)
In September 2016 we partnered with Aarambh to provide online citizens in India with their first reporting portal for online child sexual abuse imagery.
It can be found here in both English and Hindi: http://aarambhindia.org/report If a web user in India stumbles across an image of a child being sexually abused, they can report what they’ve seen in five simple steps.
The report is then assessed by an expert analyst from the IWF Hotline team, based in the UK. If the image or video is illegal, the analyst will use a global network of partners to get that content taken down.
We’ve been pleased with how it’s been received, and being used so far, and long-term success relies on people knowing about the portal, and feeling confident in making reports.
An anonymous report was made through the Indian Portal to IWF for content hosted in a cyberlocker. It showed baby girls and baby boys of a range of ethnicities. Worst of all, some of the most severe abuse was happening to them; rape and sexual torture.
Although someone in India made the report, the Webpage was actually hosted in Russia and contained over 200 videos.
The time between the report being sent from India, to the time we notified the Russian Hotline was 1 hour 7 minutes. Our Russian counterparts acted swiftly; the content was removed in less than 24 hours.
This is a great example of how one person, and one report, can make a positive difference.