Culture secretary says companies have agreed to change approach and work more closely with police.Internet service providers have signed up to a fundamental change in their approach, which will involve working more closely with the police to seek out and block images of child abuse, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, has said.
Leading companies have pledged £1m to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which will intensify its work with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) to identify illegal images of child abuse before they are widely distributed online.
Miller was speaking after a summit with some of the world’s largest internet service providers (ISPs), which were summoned by the culture secretary because of concerns in government that they are failing to take adequate steps to crack down on images of child abuse.
The government estimates that there are 1 million unique users of images of child abuse online, but only 40,000 reports of illegal images are made each year to the IWF, the Cambridge-based charity that collates warnings about illegal sites.
Britain’s main ISPs – Virgin Media, BSkyB, BT and TalkTalk – have agreed to provide £1m to help the IWF in its work with Ceop, which has been incorporated into the national crime agency.
The culture secretary hailed the agreement, which will see the IWF working directly with the police to seek out illegal images rather than waiting for a complaint before acting. She told The World at One on Radio 4: “What has been agreed today is a fundamental change in the way that the industry will approach child abuse images and removing them from public view. It is important that we have made this change, that the IWF will be proactive not reactive for the first time, so it can actively seek out the sorts of images that people find absolutely abhorrent.
“It does mean that more of those images can be removed.”
Miller added in a statement: “Until now, action has only been taken by the IWF when a child sexual abuse image is reported. Now, for the first time, the IWF has been asked to work alongside Ceop to search for illegal and abusive images and block them. This will mean more images of child sexual abuse will be tracked down and acted against.
“The abuse of children is absolutely abhorrent – and that child is further violated every single time an image is circulated and viewed. The IWF and Ceop already do important and valuable work. This agreement will mean these organisations will no longer be limited to reacting to reports received. They will now have the remit and the resources to take the fight to the criminals perpetrating these vile acts.”
The summit also addressed the problem of “peer-to-peer” communication, in which child abusers distribute material by email to avoid detection. Miller said that work would continue to try to crack down on such distribution.
In one of the first steps after the summit, the industry has agreed to introduce “splash” pages by the end of the month. This will mean that if someone seeks to access a page of illegal images that has been blocked, a warning message will appear telling the user they have tried to access indecent or illegal content. At the moment an error message appears when users try to access such images.
Miller denied that the government was not taking the issue seriously after Jim Gamble resigned as chief executive of Ceop in 2010, following its incorporation into the national crime agency.
The culture secretary said: “We take it very seriously indeed. That is why Ceop is now part of the national crime agency and that is why we have 50% more staff working within Ceop. It is absolutely vital that their work continues and can reflect the scale of the problem.”
In a statement, BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media said of the extra £1m they have pledged over the next four years: “The companies will work together with government, IWF and Ceop to establish how best these funds can be spent to tackle the availability of online child abuse content. ISPs have a zero-tolerance approach to this material. This funding will help to target those individuals that create and distribute the content.”
Miller will arrange another meeting after the industry reports back to her within a month. She praised the industry for taking steps already to offer greater choice of parental controls for new customers.
The companies that attended the summit were Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, BT, BSkyB, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Vodafone, O2, EE and Three. Officers from Ceop and officials from the IWF also attended.