Still a lot to do


The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) is rightly recognised across the world as being a unique and a key player in the online child protection space. Based in Alexandria, Virginia, within sight of Washington DC it works closely with but is independent of its founder and sister body the USA’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), another world leader.

Dealing with online child abuse images is a major part of the work of both ICMEC and NCMEC. Back in 2006 ICMEC published the first of its invaluable research documents. Entitled Child Pornography: Model Legislation & Global Review ICMEC looked at how different countries were shaping up to the challenges of child abuse images in cyberspace or, as it turned out, how they weren’t.

ICMEC draws on the language and recommendations of a range of international treaties and conventions. This means, for example, ICMEC reports always refer to the illegal pictures and videos as child pornography, not child abuse images as is now customary in some parts of the world, particularly in Europe.

A new compliance standard

ICMEC examined countries under five headings:

  1. Does legislation exist which specifically outlaws child pornography, and not just pornography in general?
  2. Is there an established legal definition of child pornography?
  3. Are there laws which expressly criminalize computer-facilitated offences?
  4. Is “simple” possession of child pornography an offence, irrespective of an intent to distribute it?
  5. Are internet service providers (ISPs) required to report child pornography to the police or some other nominated agency?

In effect ICMEC established a compliance standard.

In the 1st Edition, 184 countries were reviewed, specifically these were INTERPOL member nations. Only five got a tick under all of the above headings. These were the USA, Belgium, Australia, France and South Africa.  This caused some ruffled feathers. It all centred on point 5, mandatory reporting.

More than one way

Some countries just do things their own way. It’s not a question of good and bad, better or worse. It’s about differences in jurisprudence and legal traditions. Take the UK. There is no general legal obligation to report crimes of any sort but, that aside, the fact is the degree of co-operation between British ISPs, the police and our nominated agency (the Internet Watch Foundation) is so well entrenched I would bet a £1 to a penny that on every single occasion an ISP finds suspected child abuse material it will be reported within seconds, and if it is hosted on a UK server it will now be gone within 60 minutes. For an ISP not to report would be so incredibly stupid it is hard to imagine under what circumstances that might happen. The reputational and legal risks are just too great.

Anyway the result was countries like the UK, Germany and so on were relegated (as they saw it) to the second tier  whereas, and here I am going to spare people’s blushes, it was known that at least one of the countries which got the gold star for having all the right laws in place would score zero or very close to it if anyone attempted to measure what they were actually doing on the ground in terms of implementation and police action.

Only 27 countries came up to scratch. 95 countries had nothing in place.

Disregarding point 5 ICMEC found that 27 countries met an acceptable standard i.e. ticked four out of five of the boxes. That was an astonishingly low, enormously disappointing number but the very fact that ICMEC took the time and the trouble to put that review together established for the first time ever a public reference point which immediately became a spur for legislators and policy-makers in all parts of the globe to get busy.

That same initial report also showed that 95 countries had no legislation of any kind which specifically addressed child pornography. Speaking as a Brit I was shocked to discover just how many of the 95 countries were members of what we used to call “The British Commonwealth” and which we now, less imperialistically, simply call “The Commonwealth”. Thankfully people involved in various Commonwealth institutions also noticed the same thing. The Commonwealth IGF asked me and ICMEC to put together a policy paper and an online child protection toolkit which could be sent to Commonwealth member states to help them with their thinking and planning.  The level of activity on this subject in Commonwealth countries has noticeably increased.

We’re up to 69 & down to 53

ICMEC has just published the seventh edition of their Review. It now covers 196 countries which I think means it is aligned with membership of the United Nations. The 27 countries recorded in the first edition as meeting all the criteria bar the one on reporting have now been joined by a further 42, making 69 in total. The number without any legislation addressing child pornography has come down to 53. Interestingly the rate of progress seems to be picking up. Between the first publication in 2006 and the sixth edition in 2010 the number grew from 27 to 45. Between 2010 and 2012 it moved from 45 to 69. Big round of applause to all concerned not least to the folks at ICMEC for keeping the spotlight tightly focused.

“Simple possession” must be illegal

Obviously the aim must be to get every country up to 5 out of 5 or 4 out of 5, but for me outlawing “simple possession” has to be the cornerstone of any real advances. However, the seventh edition reveals there are still 47 countries where possession is not a crime. In my book this is a fatal flaw. If law enforcement have to prove an intention to distribute (whether for financial gain or not) this severely curtails the range and scope of the enforcement action they can take. Moreover we know from research elsewhere that possession is a key marker which can signal that the possessor is himself a potential hands on child abuser. And if possession is legal it means there is a de facto market. A signal is sent to others to keep on abusing children in order to produce new pictures. The link between possession and abuse is very direct.

Will we ever reach the magical 196? It’s important that we keep on trying. Just as we saw with money laundering, as soon as countries gear up to deal with the issue properly and comprehensively so the bad guys will be forced to go off looking for somewhere else to park their wares. Such disruption is valuable in itself but the goal must be to deprive them of any alternative venues by making every square inch of the planet a hostile environment for child abuse and child abuse images.

More about definitions

Having said that, I think we may hit an insurmountable barrier in relation to the definitions ICMEC and the rest of us use. I remember in particular discussions I had with Iranian Government officials who said they simply could not see a distinction between child pornography and what we call adult pornography. They accepted it was a more grievous crime to harm a child sexually than it was an adult but their view was this could be reflected in court through sentencing policy. Thus, in principle, for them there was no line to be crossed between one type of pornography and another and therefore no need to have separate definitions in law. Both types of pornography are equally profane. I know not all Muslim countries share this view but equally I have no doubts about the sincerity of those Iranian civil servants with whom I debated the point.

The seventh edition also develops earlier work which ICMEC undertook on model legislation, suggesting a range of wider measures that need to form part of any comprehensive approach to tackling crimes against children in this area. In addition the Review contains a summary of the relevant major legal instruments drawn from international law and it discusses issues around implementation.

A “must have”

All in all this is a “must have” publication for law enforcement professionals, child safety advocates, policy makers in the private sector and elsewhere, Governments and editors on every continent. Much has been achieved, but there is still a lot to do. Already I am looking forward to the eighth edition to record yet more progress. But more than anything I am looking forward to a time when there will be no need for any editions at all.