British overseas territories are among the world’s leading hosts of websites with images of child sexual abuse, despite government efforts to lead a global campaign to tackle exploitation.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) charity has revealed that one former British colony was the fourth-largest internet domain for sexual abuse images last year.
The revelation is embarrassing for the UK, which has been spending £50m to advise other countries on tackling child abuse. The money has been targeted at 17 high-risk nations, from Brazil to the Philippines, under a programme created by then prime minister David Cameron.
In 2016 the IWF found 13 websites with 1,488 web pages within the .io domain for the British Indian Ocean Territory, best known for the US military base on Diego Garcia. So far this year it has identified a further 238 web pages with such images.
The IWF has also found its first case of sexual abuse images in the .sh domain for St Helena, the island in the south Atlantic where Napoleon was exiled.
Both .io and .sh are examples of “top-level” domains — the short code at the end of a web address — which also include .com and .uk. The code helps computers find the right website and is an important part of how the web is administered.
The rights to web addresses, or domains, for both British territories are sold by the Internet Computer Bureau (ICB), a firm owned by Paul Kane, 55, and Fiona Kane, 52, who live in a £1.87m home in Wiltshire. They say they make no profit from the .io domain and anyone registering a website has agreed not to use it for any illegal purpose. There is no suggestion the Kanes or ICB have done anything wrong.
The couple also sell domains for Ascension Island in the south Atlantic, which served as a forward base for British forces in the Falklands War. The IWF has not found any images of sexual abuse on the island’s .ac domain.
John Carr, a government adviser on internet safety and an executive member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, urged ministers to intervene to place Britain’s overseas territories under the same rules as the .uk regime.
“If the .io [domain] was run along the same lines as .uk,” he said, “this simply could not have happened.”
CHILD SEX HUB
1,488 – the number of web pages with child abuse images in one British outpost
37% – the share of the world’s abuse web pages hosted in Holland
£50m – the amount the UK spends advising other nations on the child abuse fight
Anyone wanting to place a website on Nominet, the registry for the .uk domain, has to prove their identity and face checks for child abuse images.
“Registries are like cyber-taps, and here we see what happens when you leave the taps open,” Carr added. “Police forces around the world are being flooded. They cannot cope.”
In 2015 the IWF found only 18 web pages featuring child abuse on the .io domain on three websites, but last year it accounted for almost 3% of all child abuse web pages detected by IWF.
The .com domain accounted for 50% worldwide, .net 20% and .se, the domain for Sweden, for 6%. Almost all of the criminal imagery accessed through .io was held in data centres in Holland. The IWF alerts its Dutch counterpart EOKM when it finds criminal material.
Arda Gerkens, director of the Dutch watchdog, said most images on other domains were removed within 48 hours but the Dutch firm responsible for most of the illegal material on the .io domain had refused to act and police were involved.
ICB said it had no obligation to monitor content but took action to suspend offending websites if provided with names. It said it had not been contacted by the IWF.
The Foreign Office said: “We are urgently looking into this and will take action as needed with the relevant authorities.”