Today (18 November) the Prime Minister hosted a key summit at Downing Street to welcome progress made by internet service providers, leading search engines and police agencies to better protect children from harmful material online and block child abuse and other illegal content but warned that there is still more to do.
Speaking ahead of the event, the Prime Minister said the internet search engines in particular have made “significant progress” since July to prevent child abuse content from being available across the world but will make clear that he will still bring forward legislation if they fail to deliver.
The Prime Minister also said:
Back in July, I said I wanted to do much more to protect our children from the risks posed by the internet and those who seek to use the web to look at and share illegal and vile content.
Since then, we have made real progress on filters and parental controls to protect children, and on the government side we’ve strengthened Britain’s ability to combat child abuse online with the new National Crime Agency, with over 4000 specially trained officers.
But we were clear that we needed the search engines to do more to ensure people can’t access extreme material via a simple search.
At the time, Google and Microsoft - who cover 95% of the market - said blocking search results couldn’t be done, that it shouldn’t be done.
They argued that it was against the very principle of the internet and search engines to block material even if there was no doubt that some of the search terms being used by paedophiles were abhorrent in a modern society.
I did not accept that then and I do not accept that now.
Since then, we have worked closely with both Google and Microsoft and they have made significant progress in preventing child abuse content from being returned.
Both companies have made clear to me that they share my commitment to stop child abuse content from being available not only in the UK but across the world.
This must mean making sure that it is not possible for people to find child abuse content via search engines now or in the future.
If the search engines are unable to deliver on their commitment to prevent child abuse material being returned from search terms used by paedophiles, I will bring forward legislation that will ensure it happens.
With the progress that has been made in 4 months, I believe we are heading in right direction but no-one should be in doubt that there is a red line: if more isn’t done to stop illegal content or pathways being found when someone uses a child abuse search term, we will do what is necessary to protect our children.
Changes introduced by search engines
Google and Microsoft have introduced a number of changes to their search function, not only in the UK, but across the world and National Crime Agency testing of the new measures shows that child abuse images, videos or pathways are no longer being returned against a blacklist of search terms at present.
The changes introduced by the search engines include:
- the introduction of new algorithms that will block child abuse images, videos and pathways that lead to illegal content, covering 100,000 unique searches on Google worldwide
- stopping auto-complete features from offering people child abuse search terms
- Google and Microsoft will now work with the National Crime Agency and the Internet Watch Foundation to bring forward a plan to tackle peer to peer networks featuring child abuse images
- Google will bring forward new technology that will put a unique identification mark on illegal child abuse videos, which will mean all copies are removed from the web once a single copy is identified
Action must be taken
The internet safety summit came 4 months after the Prime Minister said that action must be taken in 2 different areas: first, to end the proliferation and accessibility of child abuse images on the internet and, second, to stop so many children viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very early age.
Following the Prime Minister’s speech in July, CEOP, part of the National Crime Agency, gave the search engines a list of terms which they said were unambiguous. If you used these you were looking for child abuse images online. In the speech, the search companies were challenged to block these terms, to make sure that no illegal content or pathways to illegal content were returned.
That was not the case in July but the new measures mean that is now happening.
The government will work with the National Crime Agency and others to monitor the effectiveness of the new technology introduced by Google and Microsoft. It is imperative that they can show they are preventing imagery or pathways are returned against blacklisted search terms identified by the National Crime Agency.
A recent deterrence campaign from Google led to a 20% drop off on people trying to find illegal content, showing this sort of action will make a difference.
Progress already made
The key areas where progress has been made include:
- Hundreds of thousands of homes have already been given a whole home family friendly internet filter just months after the Prime Minister signed up internet service providers to do more to help parents keep their children safe online. The providers will confirm to the Prime Minister that 20 million homes – 95% of all homes in Britain with an existing internet connection – will be required to choose whether to switch on a whole home family friendly internet filter by the end of next year. The 6 largest public Wi-Fi providers across Britain have switched on family friendly filters in all areas where children might access the internet.
- Britain and the US have team up to target child abuse online with a new UK-US taskforce, set up between US Assistant Attorney General and the UK government, that will identify cross-Atlantic targeting of criminals who think they are hidden from the law, including those operating on the ‘dark web’. Ex-Google and Facebook chief Joanna Shield will lead an industry group of technical experts to explore what more can be done.
- Internet service providers have announced a new £25 million internet safety campaign over 3 years that will reach out to millions of parents on how best to protect their children and make good use of filters.
- The newly formed National Crime Agency will target child abusers online in Britain, working with crime agencies across the world. Britain has strengthened its ability to combat child abuse online via the new National Crime Agency and 4,000 staff are available to help track, investigate and arrest paedophiles. In the National Crime Agency’s first month, 24 people were arrested on suspicion of distributing indecent images of children as part of a stand-alone operation.
- The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – the industry body tasked with identifying and taking down illegal content – will now expand its operation with an additional £1.5 million funding boost. A new group of skilled analysts are being recruited and will be operational within months, effectively tripling the team. With the additional fire-power, the IWF will for the first time ever proactively seek out child abuse sites, so that the more material is blocked and warning ‘splash’ pages put in place.