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Google’s Chrome plans ‘risk undermining fight against online child abuse’

A planned change to the Chrome web browser by Google would have a “catastrophic impact on victims of online child sexual abuse” by undermining internet filters in the UK, the government has been warned.

Techniques used to prevent images of child abuse being spread online would be made “obsolete” unless the government takes action, according to a parliamentary briefing note obtained by Sky News.

The briefing, written by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – a charity with the task of finding and removing child abuse images online – says its “crucial service” of filtering URLs is now at risk.

The Internet Watch Foundation
Image: The IWF describes the changes as ‘catastrophic’

The government has faced months of warnings related to the changes, due in future releases of Google’s Chrome browser and Mozilla Firefox, but is yet to address them.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have warned that the changes, despite being designed to protect users, would critically undermine tools used to block people from accessing abuse websites.

The IWF provides ISPs with a list of up to 12,000 web pages which hold child abuse material so that the ISPs can filter access to those pages while authorities try to take them down.

But browser companies argue that the mechanism this anti-abuse filter uses could be exploited by criminals and hackers and they are trying to fix the technical issue.

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Chrome is the most widely used web browser in the UK, with almost 50% of the entire market share according to StatCounter, while roughly 5% of Brits browse over Firefox.

The IWF are concerned that the changes to both browsers could ruin years of work tackling child abuse images by allowing the public to access them at an enormous scale.

Houses of Parliament
Image: Sky News obtained a parliamentary briefing note regarding the changes

Fred Langford, the head of the IWF, warned: “If [the technology was] the default position on browsers used by the majority of people in the UK, it would make the kind of images we’ve spent all these years blocking suddenly highly accessible.”

A spokesperson for the ISPA trade association which supports ISPs told Sky News: “Serious changes need to be made to [the new technology] for it to be even near fit for purpose in the UK.

“Until that happens the government needs to send a strong message to browsers such as Mozilla and Google that these changes cannot go ahead.”

A government spokesperson said: “Whilst we look to support capabilities that seek to deliver security and privacy to the UK online, we are concerned about unintended consequences changes could have.

“We will work with industry and regulators to seek solutions to any potential problems as part of our ongoing work to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”

A screen displays the logo of the open-source web browser Firefox on July 31, 2009, in London, as the software edges towards it's billionth download within the next twenty four hours. First released in 2004, the browser currently holds around 31 % of the market share with Microsoft's Internet Explorer dominating the field with 60 %. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Mozilla said DNS-based filters were already broken

A spokesperson for Mozilla told Sky News that the technology wouldn’t “truly change the state” of how the content restrictions work, which they said had been ineffective for over a decade.

However they added that they “always honour user choice” and that Firefox would make it possible for people to manually configure their settings so that they were bound to the ISP restrictions.

“We will also disable the feature automatically within companies, libraries, schools and other organisations that have managed networks or custom DNS settings,” Mozilla added.

In its statement, Google said it was “always looking for ways to enhance privacy and protect users from online threats” and was currently “exploring additional ways to provide secure connections”.

“Contrary to reports, these secure connections would not disable the existing content controls of your current provider, including any existing protections for children,” the company said.

The allegation from the IWF is not that Chrome would disable the existing content controls, but that it would automatically bypass the way they are implemented.

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