Technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of child sexual abuse last year, reports the New York Times. Some involve children 3 or 4 years old being sexually abused and tortured. More than a decade ago, when the reported number was less than one million, the proliferation of the explicit imagery had already reached a crisis point. Tech companies, law enforcement agencies and Congress responded, passing legislation in 2008. An insatiable criminal underworld has exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it. As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to police sexual abuse imagery adequately on their platforms or failed to cooperate with the authorities when they found it.
Law enforcement agencies were left understaffed and underfunded, even as they were asked to handle far larger caseloads. The Justice Department, given a major role by Congress, neglected to write mandatory monitoring reports, nor did it appoint a senior official to lead a crackdown. The group tasked with serving as a federal clearinghouse for the imagery — the go-between for the tech companies and the authorities — was ill equipped for the expanding demands. A paper published in conjunction with that group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, described a system at “a breaking point,” with reports of abusive images “exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action.” In interviews, victims described in heart-wrenching detail how their lives had been upended by the abuse. In a disturbing trend, online groups are devoting themselves to sharing images of younger children and more extreme forms of abuse. The groups use encrypted technologies and the dark web to teach pedophiles how to carry out the crimes and how to record and share images of the abuse worldwide.