Chatroom Danger: The role of the Internet Watch Foundation

The IWF claims to be attempting to "protect children from sexual abuse". How effective is the organisation? WARNING: this article contains strong and sexually explicit language

Online paedophilia is back in the news following the terrible revelations about the Wonderland Club -- the world's biggest Net-based child pornography ring -- and a string of physical assaults on children as a result of online conversations.

ZDNet News has exposed the dangers lurking just two clicks away in Yahoo!'s instant messaging service where paedophiles are regularly "grooming" youngsters for sex and the problem has gone right to the heart of government, with prime minister Tony Blair promising to look at the issue.

At the moment the UK has one organisation dedicated to monitoring and removing pornography from the Net. The IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) was set up in the autumn of 1996 to look at the growing problem of child pornography on the Internet.

At the time -- with the Net in its infancy and the scourge of Web porn leading to a lot of negative headlines -- there was concern that the ISP industry would be held responsible for such unwholesome content. Under pressure from both the press and the police the IWF was born -- as a way of proving that the fledging Internet industry could act responsibly on these matters.

The IWF is held up today as one of the best examples of how the industry can regulate itself with little, if any, need for government intervention. It is lauded by the UK government and held up by the EU as a shining example of how to deal with online porn. As such it is likely spawn a succession of copycat IWFs across Europe. But the rise to prominence of the IWF has not been without its tensions and some question how effective it has been and how independent it can ever be, given it is funded almost wholly by the ISP industry.

Nigel Williams is the director of Childnet and a board member of the IWF. He admits that there have always been two agendas within the organisation -- one about protecting children and another about protecting ISPs from legal action.

"There was a mixture of motives there. ISPs were under pressure from the police and the IWF was seen as a way of preventing them from receiving legal action but it was also motivated by wanting to do something about child pornography. I have always seen it as being about protecting children but I recognise that the industry comes to the table with a different agenda," he says.

Founder member of the IWF board Cliff Stanford believes these two interests can sit quite happily together with no conflict at all. He claims the organisation is completely independent and is doing an excellent job. In his interpretation of the role of the IWF he concentrates on the relationship the IWF has built up with the police. He sees it wholly about "protecting children from sexual abuse" and says it is not the IWF's role to prevent children from looking at pornographic images. He points out that many of the cases the IWF has been alerted to have resulted in prosecutions but he denies that this makes it reactive.

"It is very proactive. It alerts ISPs to take content down and notifies the police who use it to find the person perpetrating the pornography," he says.

The IWF is not about protecting children online he says. "It is not its job to play nursemaid to children -- that is the parent's job," he says. This echoes his IWF cofounder Clive Feather's remarks during a House of Lords debate. Challenged over its role in the Patrick Green case in which a 13-year-old girl was raped after meeting the 33-year-old in a Yahoo! chatroom, Feather asked where the parents were.

Nicholas Lansman is secretary general of ISPA (Internet Service Providers' Association), an organisation that has traditionally been bosom buddies with the IWF and was closely involved in setting it up. He believes it is important that a distinction is made between the content ISPs have control of and consequently can do something about and content they cannot.

Newsgroups that carry pornographic material are the responsibility of ISPs as they are hosted on their servers. Lansman insists ISPs are acting responsibly in regard to these newsgroups. "ISPA members do not carry the groups that the IWF has said contain illegal material," he asserts.

Deputy chief executive of the IWF Ruth Dixon contradicts Lansman, claiming the organisation doesn't recommend that ISPs take down any content. Instead it has a list of illegal newsgroups and when this is scrutinised it becomes apparent that the IWF is only scratching the surface of the problem. There are curently 28 newsgroups listed by the IWF as carrying illegal material but child protection experts estimate there are thousands if not tens of thousands of newsgroups dedicated to child pornography floating around in cyberspace.

Moreover chatrooms, which have become the latest worry of concerned parents following the Patrick Green case, fall outside of the IWF and ISPs' remit completely as they are realtime and Web-based. Consequently Lansman believes ISPs cannot be held responsible for them.

Williams agrees that chatrooms are beyond the current remit of the IWF but thinks the organisation could take a more proactive approach in alerting families to the dangers lurking online. Unlike Stanford, Williams is not convinced of the IWF's independence from the ISP industry. "There is gradual change towards independence but there are constraints on it. It does need to be doing more on awareness and promoting the safe use of the Internet. There isn't another body that can do that with such UK focus as the IWF," he says.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties, has been scruntinising the IWF for some time and concludes that it is a "quasi-regulatory body with no public accountability". He is in no doubt what the really motivation for the IWF is. "Its main purpose is to protect ISPs from prosecution but of course it doesn't advertise itself as that," he says.

He is dismissive of Stanford's claim it exists to prevent sexual abuse. "I don't think it even addresses the issue of sexual abuse and we have no way of knowing the extent of the problem. If there are just 20,000 images of child porn on the Internet then the IWF is successful but they don't tell us how many images per year or per week are posted on the Internet."

Change is afoot in the IWF. It is currently consulting its board members about whether it should go farther than just list illegal newsgroups and advise ISPs to close them down. One proposal even suggests the IWF could force ISPs to close down certain newsgroups.

The issue is also obviously causing friction among the board. "There is no final decision yet," says Williams. Clearly there is dissent from within the IWF between the independent board members that have been brought to balance the numbers and its traditionally loyal ISP members.

If the IWF wants to live up to the role Stanford gives it of protecting children from sexual abuse then it also needs to tackle the problem of chatrooms. While it ducks the issue of chatroom danger it is unlikely that either the victims of chatroom abuse or those trying to do something about it will sleep any easier in their beds.

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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