ISPs team up to fight child exploitation

It will be harder for Web surfers to accidentally – or otherwise — stumble upon the worst the Internet has to offer, thanks to an initiative involving Cybertip.ca and Canada’s major ISPs.

The initiative, called Project Cleanfeed Canada, is modelled on Britain’s Project Cleanfeed, started in June 2004. Cybertip.ca is Canada’s child sexual exploitation tipline.

In Canada, Bell Aliant, Bell Canada, MTS Allstream, Rogers, SaskTel, Shaw Communications Inc., Telus and Videotron are participating in the project.

Jay Thomson, assistant vice-president of broadband policy for Telus, wouldn’t provide details on how the technology behind the initiative works, other than to say the participating ISPs are installing new filters that will allow them to prevent their customers from visiting the Web addresses provided to them as blacklists from Cybertip.

“At a high level, Cybertip creates, maintains and securely distributes to us the list of the addresses that will be filtered,” he said. “We automatically incorporate that new list into our filters and that should serve to prevent our customers from getting access to those addresses.”

The plan is to reduce the likelihood kids will come across images of child exploitation on the Internet by unwittingly clicking on search results or typing a wrong address into a browser, said Thomson.

But ISPs are not involved in collecting the addresses or in providing information to the police, he said. In other words, they won’t be tracking the IP addresses of customers who try to access the blacklisted sites.

“We have no input or knowledge of what’s on their list,” he said. “It’s not intended to be a service to track customers or help law enforcement; it’s purely a protection for customers.”

Lianna McDonald, executive director of Cybertip.ca and chair of the Canadian Coalition Against Internet Child Exploitation (C-CAICE), said the organization has been working on the project for the past year. And while it’s pleased to have had such co-operation from the country’s biggest ISPs, it still wants to get the smaller ones on board as well. “We don’t want to create loopholes through types of providers,” she said.

But, she said, she recognizes there are greater financial issues for smaller ISPs to work out. She’s hoping once the project is up and running Cybertip.ca will have some data it can provide those other ISPs as to how well the system works and what’s involved in participating.

The way it works is users who want to report a site containing child sexual exploitation images can visit Cybertip.ca and fill out an anonymous form, although they have the option of providing personal contact information.

Cybertip.ca works with law enforcement to decide whether the site does in fact contravene Canada’s child exploitation laws, or whether it’s just plain offensive, but not illegal.

“We never accept images,” she said. “We go to the URL and validate it using different techniques.”

Cybertip.ca also has to determine where the site is being hosted. If it’s in Canada, it falls under the jurisdiction of Canadian law enforcement. If it’s outside the country, Cybertip.ca would contact the tip line or law enforcement in that jurisdiction.

From its inception in September 2002 until the end of October 2006, Cybertip.ca received 14,633 tips. Of those, 2,500 pertained to educational questions, nearly 7,000 had more to do with sites people found offensive, but didn’t qualify as illegal, and just over 5,000 reports were forwarded to law enforcement.

As a result of the tips, 22 people have been arrested, and 1,700 sites have been shut down. Another 1,500 or so are under investigation.

For Cybertip.ca, the biggest challenge it faced in undertaking Project Cleanfeed was that of security, said McDonald. It had to build a separate database for the content and find a way to ensure the electronic information sent to law enforcement and to the ISPs is sent securely, meaning the images cannot be opened or the sites on the blacklist accessed.

And while McDonald hopes to at least interrupt access to child pornography on the Internet, she said she has to be realistic at the same time: Much of the grizzly underbelly of child pornography has moved to password-protected sites.

“A lot of hard-core offenders are not going to be using public Web sites,” she said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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