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45 Million Images of Child Sexual Abuse Are Online Right Now: What Parents Need to Know

It's proof that a 2008 law designed to protect children is failing miserably.

A thorough report from the New York Times shows just how poorly the fight to rid the Internet of child sexual abuse imagery is going. Tech companies reported more than 45 million photos and videos of children being sexually abused were online last year, a figure that’s more than double that of the previous year. It’s a horrifying rise that proves a 2008 law designed to “eradicate cyber threats to our children” is a failure. The reasons for this failure are numerous. Here’s what parents need to know.

So, how did we get here? Some of the cause is the way in which the 2008 law is written. It requires tech companies to report offending material when they find them, but not to actively seek it out, essentially enabling them to look the other way. There have also been failures in implementation. The Justice Department has failed to regularly submit the mandatory monitoring reports required by the law. Less than half of the $60 million authorized for state and regional investigations is regularly approved, a figure that would still be “vastly inadequate,” in the words of one lawmaker, if fully funded.

Law enforcement is also underresourced, so overwhelmed by the number of reports that many agencies have had to prioritize the youngest victims. The FBI, for instance, “has narrowed its focus to images of infants and toddlers,” which means those who post videos of older kids being abused are less likely to be targeted.

The law also put a lot of responsibility with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to provide tips to law enforcement. It relies on 20-year-old technology that pre-dates the dark web, where much child sexual imagery is shared online. It’s also underfunded, forced to rely on donations from tech companies with clear conflicts of interest despite the fact that it, in the words of one federal court, the center is “performing a number of essential government functions.”

The National Center also prioritizes the rescue of abducted children which, while understandable, signifies that it is not equipped to attack the trading of illegal images online, which now happens with relative impunity. Entire sections of the message boards where these materials are traded are dedicated to information about how to not get caught.

Here’s one important detail for US parents though: overwhelming, this material is not depicting children here. Most of the offending material came from outside of the United States, but, in the words of the Times, Silicon Valley has played a “central role…in facilitating the imagery’s spread and in reporting it to the authorities.”

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The report makes it clear that a combination of greater resources for the public sector and greater accountability for the private sector is needed to address this problem. Here’s hoping that, in its wake, that’s exactly what happens.