There has been an alarming rise in the volume of child sexual abuse content online, with reports of illegal material by members of the public at an all-time high.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has called on internet service providers to sign up to a Garda initiative to combat online child abuse after a report revealed a 148% jump in such cases.
Just one of the country’s 55 internet providers — UPC — has joined the scheme, which was launched last November.
It comes as an industry watchdog, financed by ISPs, reported a massive rise in child abuse material, increasing from 135 cases in 2013 to 335 in 2014, the highest figure ever.
“The gardaí are involved in discussions with other companies and I hope they will bear fruit in the way discussions with UPC did,” Ms Fitzgerald said at the launch of the Hotline.ie 2014 annual report.
“I’d like to see them involved,” she said. “Obviously they have been approached by An Garda Siochána. There are issues of balance between their approach to the issue, in terms of managing privacy issues, the interface between the law and their, if you like, duties to their customers as they see it.
“Really the basic issue is, if children are being abused in any way and that’s reported, that needs action from the gardaí.”
Under the Garda memorandum of understanding, UPC prevents its customers from access to a list of websites identified by gardaí as containing child abuse imagery.
The Hotline.ie report found the number of reports from the public of suspected illegal content online jumped by 97%, from 2,568 in 2013 to 4,863 in 2014, by far the highest ever reported.
These were assessed by Hotline.ie analysts, who found that 358 were determined as illegal, 335 of which were child sexual abuse material. This compared to 135 cases in 2013 and 97 in 2012.
Speaking at the launch, Paul Durrant, chief executive of Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) and manager of Hotline.ie, said they were taken aback by the increase in the number of reports.
“To be quite honest we were surprised by it; so much above what the previous average was,” said Mr Durrant. “You could view it as a good thing; maybe people are more prepared to report. That yields more incidents that we find are illegal and taken down and passed on to law enforcement, so hopefully they can track down perpetrators.”
According to the report, 55 ISPAI members finance Hotline.ie. Besides UPC, they include Google, Yahoo, BT, Vodafone, O2, Eircom, and Meteor.
Mr Durrant said the question of companies signing up to the Garda memorandum “was not an issue for Hotline.ie”.
However, he added: “You can only block something when you know, so you need a hotline so people can report it, so it can be added to a list.”
He said the internet was “incredibly dynamic” and that, by the time they are alerted to a suspect site, it could be gone after downloading a huge amount of material.
Patrick McKenna of Child Watch called on Ms Fitzgerald to compel ISPs to block child abuse sites if they did not follow the lead of UPC.
Hotline.ie referred 222 cases to their international sister body In Hope.
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