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Online Studies

Safe Online Funds Drive Innovative Chatbot Project to Disrupt Potential Offenders and Protect Children from Online Abuse

"Our mission is to create a safer internet for all—an internet free of child sexual abuse. To achieve a safe internet, especially for children, we need a cohesive approach where all parties play their part: tech industry platforms must create products that are safe by design; policymakers and regulators must ensure that good standards are adhered to across the industry; and educators and parents must ensure that children are equipped with knowledge and understand the risks online."

-Dan Sexton, Chief Technology Officer at the Internet Watch Foundation

Safe Online Funds Drive Innovative Chatbot Project to Disrupt Potential Offenders and Protect Children from Online Abuse

In an era where children are increasingly exposed to the dangers of online sexual abuse, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is pioneering a novel approach to enhance online safety. Through the support of Safe Online, this innovative initiative deploys a chatbot to detect potential offenders and guide them toward support services.

Dan Sexton, the Chief Technology Officer at the Internet Watch Foundation highlighting the project's transformative impact, explains the urgent need for such an intervention, “The reThink Chatbot really came about because we saw the steady rise of child sexual abuse online and the terrifying reports of the number of adults that may pose a risk to children. We realised that as important as it is to remove content, there needs to be more done to also address the demand. So what we have done using that support from Safe Online is to develop alongside Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Aylo (formerly MindGeek) is to create a chatbot which can intervene and try to disrupt and redirect people who are searching for images of child sexual abuse towards help.”

The reThink Chatbot is not only designed to detect potential offenders but also to actively engage them, directing these individuals toward rehabilitation and support services offered by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. By focusing on the source of the threat, the reThink Chatbot aims to preemptively reduce incidents of abuse, marking a significant advancement in the fight to safeguard our children's digital landscapes.

Using Innovative Technology to Prevent Crimes

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, expresses the urgency and significance of this project, sharing, “Today, children face a greater risk of sexual abuse online than ever before. Using chatbot technology, we will engage potential offenders before they commit sexual offences and refer them to help. No child deserves to have their innocence taken away.”

The reThink Chatbot: Revealing the Project

The Internet Watch Foundation collaborated with Stop It Now! and Aylo, launching the reThink chatbot in March 2022 to actively intercept users attempting to search for sexual images of children on Pornhub, initiating conversations and guiding them towards support services provided by Stop It Now! UK and Ireland to address their behaviour. With the aim of preventing potential offenders from committing crimes and reducing the demand for illegal material, the chatbot marks the first initiative of its kind to use technology for preemptive intervention. The project has already shown promising results. In its first 30 days, the chatbot engaged in conversations with users on 173,904 search attempts related to child sexual imagery, and 158 individuals sought further help. Sexton highlights: “That's 158 people potentially searching for child sexual abuse online who sought help, who may not have done so otherwise.”

The project exemplifies a novel approach to safeguarding children in the digital age by directly confronting offenders, leveraging a partnership between the tech industry and child protection organisations, aiming for a global impact. By intervening before any criminal actions occur, this pioneering technology not only aims to reduce the demand for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) online but also serves as a proactive measure to shield children from falling victim to such heinous crimes.

The project's initial phase involves the development and deployment of the reThink Chatbot for pilot use in the United Kingdom. This strategic approach allows for thorough testing and optimisation of the technology within a controlled environment. The ultimate goal, however, is to scale up the initiative for global impact, reaching beyond borders and protecting children on an international scale.

“If it works on adult websites, there's no reason why it couldn't be made compatible in other places where there is a potential for people to be looking for child sex abuse material,” adds Sexton.

Global Collaboration: reThink Chatbot Leads Online Safety Initiative

In conclusion, the reThink Chatbot initiative exemplifies the innovative use of technology to foster a safer online environment for children worldwide. Spearheaded by the Internet Watch Foundation and buoyed by the essential financial backing from Safe Online, this project represents a collaborative effort to address and mitigate the risks of online child sexual abuse. The partnership with Stop It Now! and Aylo highlights a proactive approach to engaging potential offenders, steering them towards rehabilitation and support before crimes are committed.

Dan Sexton, emphasises the importance of a cohesive approach, stating, “Our mission is to see a safer Internet for all that is free of child sexual abuse.” This collaborative effort between industry, policymakers, educators, and parents aims to create products and standards that prioritise safety, ensuring children are equipped to navigate online risks.

By combining efforts across borders, the project underlines the global commitment required to combat the pervasive issue of online sexual exploitation of children. The promising early results from the chatbot's deployment signal a significant step forward in the ongoing battle to protect children and young people online, showcasing the critical role of cross-sector partnerships in achieving widespread impact. The reThink Chatbot is an important initiative, embodying the potential for technology to not only connect us but also to protect some of our most vulnerable from harm.

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