On Sunday, the New York Times published a ruin-your-day (slash week slash year slash life), can’t-unsee report on the proliferation of child sexual abuse imagery online (the material is frequently referred to as “child pornography,” but the article states that “experts prefer terms like child sexual abuse imagery or child exploitation material to underscore the seriousness of the crimes and to avoid conflating it with adult pornography, which is legal for people over 18"). It is as harrowing as it is crucial, at times nearly impossible to read and yet urgently important.
Journalists Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance comb through failures on several fronts—that of tech companies, the Justice Department, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children—to help answer the question in their story’s headline: “The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?” It includes several descriptions of confiscated imagery of children being abused and tortured. Grueling as these are, they represent a drop in the bucket: The article says that last year, “technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of the abuse last year.”
To give a sense of the boom, in 2014 the number of reports of child sexual abuse imagery passed 1 million for the first time; by 2018, the number of reports (which typically contain multiple images) were at 18.4 million. It is “a problem global in scope.” Reading about it feels even more hopeless than climate change; at least with climate change you can soothe yourself with the hope that your own actions may help slow or counter it. The world of is child sexual abuse imagery is divorced from the mainstream by design; all most of us who aren’t involved in the active prosecution of it can do is worry about the growing epidemic from afar.
People who actively post and view these abuse images do so via modern methods of hyper-privacy: VPNs, encryption, and the dark web. Such advances in technology combine with tech’s sluggish responses (“Tech companies are legally required to report images of child abuse only when they discover them; they are not required to look for them,” says the piece) to create a perfect storm of opportunity. Meanwhile, the Center for Missing & Exploited Children is still using technology from 1998 to receive and review reports of this material—you’ll note that said technology predated the iPhone by some 10 years. The agency told the Times that it plans to update its tech next year.
Also unsettling are the close ties between the Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Silicon Valley—many of whose companies are accused by the Times of having “failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.” Something especially disturbing within an already disturbing report:
The Times found that there was a close relationship between the center and Silicon Valley that raised questions about good governance practices. For example, the center receives both money and in-kind donations from tech companies, while employees of the same companies are sometimes members of its board. Google alone has donated nearly $4 million in the past decade, according to public testimony.
A spokeswoman for the center said it was common to expect corporations to provide financial assistance to charities. But the practice, others working in the area of child protection say, could elevate the interests of the tech companies above the children’s.
“There’s an inherent conflict in accepting money from these companies when they also sit on your board,” said Signy Arnason, who is a top executive at the equivalent organization in Canada, known as the Canadian Center for Child Protection.
The Times reports, though, that this may not be the case for much longer as in 2016 a federal court held that though the Center for Missing & Exploited Children is private, it qualifies as a government entity for performing government functions. “As the nation’s clearinghouse & comprehensive reporting center for all issues related to the prevention of and recovery from child victimization, NCMEC leads the fight against abduction, abuse, and exploitation - because every child deserves a safe childhood,” reads the description of the center on its website.
The possibility of a more focused response and the vague passing mention of development of technology to help combat child sexual abuse imagery online is about as close to hope as the article has to offer. This is a miserable, life-destroying epidemic afflicting humanity, and as of now, there’s barely the notion of a cure.