Online child abuse watchdog deluged with 'false' reports including family holiday snaps

Charles Hymas
Internet Watch Foundation hunts down child abuse images online - PA
Internet Watch Foundation hunts down child abuse images online - PA

Britain’s leading online child abuse watchdog has warned it is being inundated with “false reports” including animal cruelty and family holiday snaps that are hindering its work.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said the deluge of inappropriate and invalid reports from the public is preventing and delaying it from tracking down and removing material that genuinely shows child abuse and potential criminal activity.

Almost three quarters of the 106,830 reports it received from the public last year were false, which cost it £150,500 and was equivalent to losing four years of a single analyst’s time.

Invalid reports ranged from adult porn to innocent pictures of child models and family holiday snaps - none of which were deemed to be breaking any laws. 

Some have also included videos of beheadings and animal cruelty that are outside the charity’s remit but have distressed the analysts, said the IWF.

One individual had made 8,300 false reports since June 2019 despite being "repeatedly informed" the nature of the reports was not the charity’s responsibility. They related largely to innocuous pictures on Instagram.

Susie Hargreaves, IWF’s chief executive, said: “Our analysts still have to look carefully at material to make sure there is nothing criminal hidden in there and, if people are reporting inappropriate things to us, it takes up a lot of their time.

“This is time they could be spending finding and eradicating child sexual abuse material from the internet.

“We can prepare them for seeing images of children being sexually abused, but it’s harder to prepare for the unknown and unexpected, such as beheadings, or animal cruelty. It can have a real impact on our analysts.”

A new reporting page has been launched by IWF to make it clearer to the public what is, and is not, appropriate to report to it.

One of the IWF’s 14 analysts who spoke under condition of anonymity, also warned there were people acting as vigilantes deliberately searching out online child abuse who were putting themselves at risk of prosecution.

He said: “If they are caught actively searching for this, they will have no more of a defence than someone that’s doing it because they want to find it for their own gratification. It is not a defence in court going looking for this.”

He added: “We don’t expect people to be able to make their own assessments of criminal content on the internet – that’s what we’re here for.

“But by reporting anything and everything to us, when we’re here to deal with one really serious online criminality, takes up time and resources and diverts our efforts away from the victims.

“Last year it took the equivalent of more than four years’ worth of analyst time to deal with false reports. Imagine what we could have achieved for victims of sexual abuse.

IWF says material which meets the criteria for it to take action includes pornographic, explicit and grossly offensive images of children and anything which shows sexual activity involving or in the presence of a child.

It also advises the public to:

- Anonymously report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. This can include other visual depictions like computer-generated images.

- Provide the exact URL where the material was found.

- Do not report other harmful content - but use the charity's list of other bodies to direct concerns to the right one.

- Report child welfare concerns to the police.

- Do not repeatedly report the same material.