ChildWatch.ie has evolved from a need for digital based security and privacy for young people, and a desire for adults to better understand and appreciate the difficulties involved in protecting them whilst retaining freedom to interact on the internet. The group came together in 2007 and remained as an informal collaborative effort by (mainly) security consultants working to protect young people online.
An offshoot of this effort was the production of presentations that were offered to schools on a very limited basis in 2008. This was then extended and for a full school year, we delivered our presentations to schools completely free of any charges. This created its own difficulties since we had two resources working that school year without any other income and by May 2009 in the absence of any financial backing from the Dept of Education or corporates, then we had to cease the free offering and begin charging which in fairness had a huge impact on the amount of schools that we reached subsequently, but in 2009 worldly financial difficulties were raging, and this impacted us as much as anyone else.
In 2009 we authored the Barnardos (Irl) 'Three Hazards' Report in 2008/09 that dealt with a wide range of issues that affect children in digital space, and not just on the internet. We addressed data protection issues in addition to internet vulnerabilities at a time when no-one really considered the protection of childrens information in business and public service databases to be an issue.
As we read back that document it is astounding that many of the recommendations are as important now in 2016 and one is the subject of intense political and industry discussion in the US and UK where Prime Minister Cameron has initiated a process whereby age verification and identity management for young people is being actively pursued as a solution for young people accessing pornographic content.
We advised that Ireland consider that very proposal in 2009.
We also advocated that Ireland adopt a blocking policy and mandate internet service providers to filter out child abuse and exploitation images which the representative association of Irish service providers was completely against, and they held (and to a slightly lesser degree, still do) the balance of advisory power with the Office for Internet Safety (OIS) at the Department of Justice whom we and many other stakeholders felt was not working in the interests of young people. So much so that we advocated in the same report that the office should be restructured since it was known to some legal and law enforcement people in and outside of Ireland as the 'Office for the Prevention of Internet Safety for Children'.
In December 2009 following publication of the report we were asked to make a presentation to the OIS and its advisory body. We sent the presentation screens to the OIS to ensure that they would frame properly on their computer system. They reviewed the content prior to the presentation and realising that it was going to focus upon blocking child abuse images and would challenge some of the people in the room since their quotes on the issue were illustrated on the screens, cancelled our presentation. Well actually we had arrived at the OIS and were in the kitchen area awaiting entry to the conference room when an unfortunate representative from Barnardos (who at that time were on the advisory body) was dispatched to tell us that our material was unsuitable for the members in the room, and were sent packing.
To illustrate the point further, we worked with RTE Prime Time Investigates in the making of the documentary 'Crimes Against Children' and they could not get access to the OIS for interviews regarding the online protection of children in Ireland and instead had to make do with an official statement. We articulated in an unbroadcasted interview that the OIS would have been better placed in the Department of Trade and Industry since it effectively was a mouthpiece for the expanding digital industry presence in Ireland. As a consequence CW and the OIS (and its advisory body) have never communicated in now 7 years of operating in the internet safety space.
The then government refused to mandate ISP's to filter child abuse material and following this (end of 2010) An Garda Siochana wrote a letter to each ISP individually to get them to engage and build a system that was already successfully prototyped in many European and Scandinavian countries. The letter was published online and a series of interviews given in the media in early 2011 castigating the GS for advocating such a 'draconian system'. One such comment from an ISP advisor to the OIS indicated that inward investment to Ireland's emerging digital industry would be damaged if Ireland were to subject internet based child abuse images to 'censorship'. Only UPC (now Virgin Media) engaged with the GS and they are the only ISP filtering this imagery. Despite motions and debate through the Seanad, the FG/Lab government failed to move this process forward so that Ireland as a civilised society in 2016 save one ISP refuses to block exposure to child abuse images to its population. Extraordinary given our history of child abuse.
In 2010 we were also involved in a campaign to track the commercialisation of child abuse materials on the internet which was exploding, particularly in the area of advertising. Our research in this area was the basis of part of the RTE PTI documentary where showed the practice of taking over legitimate web sites and populating them with links to child abuse sites and free web hosting facilities. We also published an article in mainstream US online press highlighting the issue and naming companies that were involved in the advertising on these pages. The legal threats were mind boggling but our material evidence had been processed by the US authorities and the advertisers concerned were now seeking our 'advice' as opposed to suing us. More important was the fact that one of the largest porn businesses on earth that lead the legal threats stopped its advertising on these sites altogether, and the free web hosting sites at the center of the practice were shut down.
In 2011 came the EU Safer Kids report released at the Department of Education offices in Dublin on Safer Internet Day to much hurrah which is not surprising since it found that Ireland was the safest country in the EU for children growing up online, and that 93% of Irish parents actively mitigated what their children were doing on the internet. All the authors and government advisors were there at the release and the favourable comments from those advisors including the National Parents Council were extraordinary. And so we engaged in conversation and asked the questions that were uppermost on our minds since at that point we were inundated with requests for assistance from all manner of people and in some cases, schools that were having lots of issues that they were finding difficult to deal with, and the emerging difficulty of thousands of images of Irish schoolgirls being posted to pornographic sites. There was an ongoing difficulty with cyber bullying as well, but none the less, Ireland and internet safety had found the solution that was reminiscent of Ireland and the banking crisis: a report that said everything was not just fine, but absolutely pristine in respect of internet safety. And if a report says so and it is backed by the Departments of Justice and Education, then it must be so.
In 2012 we were working to advise members of the Senate regarding the situation with child abuse images and blocking and made a presentation to TD's, Senators and staff in the Dail along with INTERPOL. In the subsequent debates in the Seanad, much of our material became a factor in the discussion and then Minister Shatter to his credit indicated that he would look at the issue during the publication of the new Sexual Offences Bill 2016. He was replaced by Minister Frances Fitzgerald who has also done some great work with that bill, but unfortunately filtering of abuse images has not figured. The writing of this was on the wall when in 2013 in an update to the Seanad on the position, Minister Lynch standing in for the Minister for Justice ariculated that her advice (from Hotline.ie which is the ISP's self-regulation reporting mechanism and is one of three ISP members of the OIS advisory body) was that comments by Senators that the levels of child abuse images were increasing were in fact wrong, and that reports from Ireland of the existance of child abuse images on the internet were receeding.
As one can imagine, we may have made a few public comments to the contrary.
We had run a workshop for the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) and it emerged that one of their great concerns regarding internet safety materials that they were presenting in schools was simply too out of date, soft, and full of warnings and waffle. Think before you click is great advice but useless if the student listening doesn't tune in and buy into the message. And so in 2013 we revamped our presentations entirely and focused upon creating demonstrations for students to copperfasten the message that we were bringing. Hacking a phone live in the room caused a bit of a stir and using some OSINT (open source intelligence) technology to research social media accounts was also fun for all involved.
We had been highlighting the plight of Irish students public images being misused since 2011, and were were involved in telling parents to be wary of the images that they were sharing because the were appearing on sites that also hosted child abuse images and frequented by that type of audience. This was before the media focus on these areas became the highlight that it is now. In September 2013 we conducted a series of media interviews on national and local prime time radio highlighting the issue. In some of our presentations in schools, individual and sometimes groups of students approached the speaker asking for help because they were aware that their images were part of this problem online. We of course have not mandate or legal position to give such assistance unless it comes through parents or the school and such requests did and continue to reach us and we help where that is possible. The core issue with abuse of personal images is that it is not an offense to upload an image that is not illegal and the GS have no remit to get involved in cases where a crime has not taken place. Couple that with the fact that although the EU provides Ireland with funds for a Safer Internet Centre through which that type of assistance is possible (the UK being an example), we continue not to have such a centre and so students, parents, schools etc are more likely to get help from the local Community Garda than a non-existent Safer Internet Centre. The Office for Internet Safety has a mention of a 'project' involving stakeholders such as the ISP's, NCTE (now PDST at the Department of Education,), NPC, ISPCC (we have sympathy for these guys - great work that they do - but they do give child stakeholder cover to the OIS through membership of its advisory body) etc, but no centre. It is no accident that it is always the same people that keep turning up every time when one mentions a shortcoming in Ireland's internet safety mechanism.
We began formalised research of the image abuse incident in late 2013 and once we scratched the surface, we realised the size of the problem from an Irish dimension. The numbers of images uploaded since 2008 and continuing to be uploaded were numbered in the tens of thousands, and the numbers of girls affected likely between two to three thousand, and possibly more than that. We entitled our project 'Digital Fish' for short - the full working title is a bit more descriptive 'Digital Fish in a Barrel'. Because that is exactly what these girls were as their images were being systematically gathered by teenagers and adults and uploaded to pornographic and image sharing sites. Too many of the girls were to a greater or lesser degree identified, and some were compromised through the distribution of privately revealing snaps that were never meant for public consumption.
Still no Safer Internet Centre, but we did get a report from a working group appointed by then Minister Rabbitte to examine content governance on the internet. It was chaired by one of the authors of the 2011 (93% of parents.....) report and others such the NPC and ISP's were also represented. The first two lines of the report tell us the financial worth of the digital industry to Ireland and it goes on to conclude that we in fact have an internet safety system that is robust and functions well.
Really? Well those Community Garda must be really doing their thing so!
Probably not surprising among its recommendations was an upgrade of the OIS and its advisory body to become a centre for the protection of children in Ireland. Or to put it another way; it read like a 'jobs for the boys and girls' exercise.
That was May 2014 around which time a well known documentary and programme producer brought Child Watch and RTE together and the working document and its evidence became a project with the Investigations Unit that with other input, culminated in the production and release of the documentary 'Online and Unprotected' in December of the same year. Our research had continued and in April 2015 we released two versions of the Digital Fish report: the restricted version for public consumption, and a non-restricted version with all evidence included of which this latter version was placed on a very, very short distribution list such was the nature of the evidence contained in it. Again after much media work to highlight the issues of image misuse we created another workshop for the NAPD.
Throughout 2015 and now in 2016 we have engaged in investigations on behalf of parties of varying types and produced some very in-depth reports. We are preparing this new version of our web site and have decided to produce a series of videos demonstrating research techniques and outcomes for schools to show their students just what the issues are when creating that digital footprint.
Child Watch continues to be completely independent of the digital industry and government departments and we do expect that this will remain the case going forward.
That is a synopsis of our story.