The International Association of Internet Hotlines, INHOPE, does invaluable work in the fight against online child abuse material. It coordinates the activity of 43 member hotlines in 37 countries worldwide.
Historically where INHOPE was not so good was in publishing reliable data about the outcome of their collective labours. That has finally been put right. The 2012 figures provide a comprehensive and highly informative set of numbers. The picture that emerges is greatly encouraging at one level but it is extremely depressing at another, especially if you live in the Netherlands. I trust the Dutch Government and Parliament will take an urgent look. The situation is truly shocking.
But first the good news – faster take down times
Typically a hotline passes on a confirmed report of an illegal image to the police or the hosting company, sometimes both simultaneously. In the past there have been cases where, even so, the images might still be visible on the web years later. The reasons for this were many and varied but often they could be linked to a lack of police resources in the hosting country. Now INHOPE tells us
in the majority of instances the content is taken down in days and sometimes just hours
More good news – from North America
At one point the USA and Canada accounted for nearly 90% of all the child abuse material found on the internet. That didn’t mean American or Canadian citizens were necessarily directly involved in producing the pictures. The large number of inexpensive or free hosting services based in North America attracted criminals from all parts of the world. There were too few systems in place to block them or root them out.
Nor did that high percentage mean the victims depicted in the images were bound to be American or Canadian children. All that could be said with certainty was that the images were being hosted on or could be traced back to machines in either country (with the USA’s share outstripping Canada’s by quite a margin). The USA or Canada were therefore the last hop on what might well have been a long and complex distribution chain.
However, in 2012 “only” 38% of confirmed child sex abuse material found online was traced to the USA and Canada. Quite a drop. That is still disproportionately high but a long way from what it was and moving in the right direction, downwards.
The bad news
Sadly the number of confirmed reports of illegal material is still going up. In 2012 they reached 37,404, compared with 29,908 in 2011, a year on year increase of 25%. It’s impossible to say how many individual images any one of these reports might have led on to. Following further investigation any single one could have netted millions and resulted in the identification and rescue of many children.
However, Europe’s share of infamy is moving in the wrong direction. It’s going up, now accounting for 55%. Incidentally “Europe” here refers to 26 out of the 27 EU Member States (Sweden does its own thing), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Turkey and Russia.
Unbelievably, hosting companies in Holland accounted for 62% of the entire body of illegal images hosted within Europe. It is understood that one Dutch-based company alone accounts for the lion’s share.
On my reckoning this means Holland is hosting 34% of all of the illegal images in the world. Quite how this has come about is what the Dutch authorities need urgently to explain although I suppose we really want to hear what they are going to do about it.
Russia was in second position at 23% of Europe’s tally but it is hard to credit that Holland is responsible for almost three times that amount. Germany was a long way back in third place with 7% and France even further behind at 2%. I’m glad to say so little was found in the UK we didn’t even rate a mention. The Czech Republic, Latvia and Romania were the only other states to feature by name at 1% each.
Commercial v Non-Commercial Hosting
Many have argued that these days the whole of the distribution of child sex abuse material on the internet is an “amateur” affair conducted by and between evil individuals who make no charge for their wares.
Even if that were true I’m not sure it would be much comfort to the victims but anyway INHOPE’s numbers show that fully 18% of the traffic is commercial in nature. We do not know what sums of money are being generated but the point is this suggests the existence of complex systems which in turn may indicate organized crime continues to be involved.
What the INHOPE numbers do not show
What we do not know from INHOPE’s numbers are the proportions linked to different activities or technologies that are used on the internet. How much is linked to web sites or Newsgroups and how much came out of Peer2Peer networks or other technologies which are harder to police? Some INHOPE members take reports and investigate them irrespective of where they originated. Others limit themselves to the web alone.
It could be that these shifts in the technologies will explain the changing patterns of distribution in ways which are more important than observations about alterations in proportions between countries and continents. Neither should we forget that we still have no way of knowing how much of the total trade in illegal images is being reflected in these latest figures. Let’s call this a “known unknown”.
I suspect INHOPE’s figures capture only a small and shrinking fraction of all the online trade in child sexual abuse material. I say this because of persistent reports I hear from police officers in many different countries about criminals with an interest in child sex abuse going deeper into the Dark Web, using onion servers, strong encryption and the like. This in no way diminishes the importance of INHOPE. Quite the opposite. Law enforcement alone can never solve the problem.
More power to INHOPE’s elbow
INHOPE is now under new management. The early signs are very good. We need a reinvigorated INHOPE to keep up the good work and make sure it is aligned with where the greatest needs are, rather than where they used to be. With all the uncertainties which beset projects currently funded under the EU’s Safer Internet Programme there can be no doubt that INHOPE, or something very like it, has to be preserved until the scourge of child abuse images has been decisively dealt with.
We are a still long way off that moment. Unfortunately.