At the Internet Watch Foundation’s (IWF) annual general meeting today, former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Ken MacDonald reported on the results of his review into the human rights implications of the IWF’s activities.
The independent review was commissioned by the IWF following suggestions that its activities might contravene the rights enshrined in the Human Rights Act. However, at today’s AGM, Lord MacDonald put these fears to rest, praising the IWF for the respect and sensitivity with which it had balanced the rights to privacy and freedom of expression with the important task of combating the distribution of child abuse images online.
Lord MacDonald argued the IWF’s activities do impact on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, but in a way which is proportionate and justifiable.
Nevertheless, the Lord MacDonald argued that the IWF, while not a public body, does exercise a public function. Importantly, this means that its actions and decisions are a legitimate subject for judicial review.
MacDonald also made a number of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the IWF maintains its high human rights standards.
Firstly, he suggested that the IWF should explicitly limit its scope to child abuse content, removing other “potentially illegal” content from its remit. Child abuse content is unique in that it is universally condemned by the public and it is relatively easy for IWF analysts to identify. Other illegal content, on the other hand, is a much more complicated and controversial area of law, where legal defenses are potentially available to publishers that the IWF would not be well placed to adjudicate. IWF decisions to remove or block such content would run a much higher risk of impinging unacceptably on human rights.
Secondly, MacDonald argued that the IWF should limit its scope to identifying and removing child abuse content, as opposed to investigating perpetrators, which is the proper role of law enforcement. In particular, he recommended abandoning for the time being plans to investigate and disrupt the distribution of child abuse content over peer-to-peer networks. Investigation of peer-to-peer networks, argued MacDonald, inevitably involves a degree of intrusion that, while appropriate in the context of a criminal investigation, is not an appropriate role for a private body such as the IWF.
Answering questions as to whether the IWF should step in to investigate use of peer-to-peer networks by paedophiles if the police lack financial resources, the former DPP said that it should not. “The primary responsibility for dealing with serious crime lies with the State. If politicians do not give sufficient funding to the police and prosecutors, the proper response is to tell them that they should”.
The MacDonald report is currently before the IWF board, who will decide whether to accept or reject its recommendations. The IWF has promised to release the report publicly once a decision has been made.