Online Crimes against Children

The emergence of the Internet as a mass consumer product has not necessarily created any entirely new genres of crime, but it has certainly given a new twist to some very old and familiar ones.


Above all it has changed the scale on which a number of offences are carried out. Crimes against children are a classic example. Crimes involving the production and distribution of child abuse images(1) are a very specific case in point.

Prior to the arrival of the Internet, in most parts of the world it was extremely difficult to get hold of child abuse images. Usually, a person interested in acquiring any had to know someone who already had some, otherwise they had to go to great trouble and take several risks. This led one distinguished expert on child protection to describe the exchange of child abuse images at that time as being “a cottage industry.”(2) Today, however, the images can be a mouse click away. It is a global industry worth millions of dollars to those who engage in it for financial gain.(3)


Taking 1995 as “Year 0” (the last year before the Internet boom erupted in many countries), Interpol at that time knew of around 4,000 child abuse images in total. Figures recently supplied by Interpol and other data published in the UK(4) and Italy(5) suggest that today the number of known images is around 1,000,000, and the number of children abused to make them runs in the tens of thousands. There is a marked growth in images of younger children being subjected to ever more violent and depraved sexual acts.(6) It is anybody’s guess how often the images and their duplicates are downloaded or exchanged online and off, but it is likely to run into billions.

Another indication of the change in the scale of offending comes from an examination of the numbers of images seized by the police when arresting suspects. Prior to the Internet, typically police officers would arrest individuals with only a handful of images in their possession, or in unusual cases maybe hundreds. In the whole of 1995 the police in Greater Manchester in the UK seized the grand total of 12.(7) In June 2009 in a single action the police in Mexico arrested one man, Arthur Leland Sayler, who possessed 4 million images.

The trend in convictions is another useful signifier. Taking 1995 once more as the baseline, in the UK 142 people were cautioned or proceeded against for child abuse image offences. In 2007 it was 1,402.(8) Precise comparisons between 1995 and 2007 in terms of Internet usage are not very meaningful because broadband barely existed in 1995, while by 2007 it had become commonplace.(9) In 1995 fewer than two millions UK households had Internet access (primarily dial-up), whereas by 2007 the number of households with Internet access was up to 15.23 millions, of whom 84% had broadband.(10) The inference is pretty clear. There is a strong link between Internet crimes of this kind and the growth in the number of Internet connections within a country. No nation appears to be exempt.

The scale of activity addressed

There are well established procedures for notifying hosting companies of the presence on their web servers of illegal images. These procedures normally work very well and the images are removed swiftly when the hosting company is in the same jurisdiction as the person reporting it; however, if the image is on a web site housed in a foreign jurisdiction there can be inordinate delays,(11) while the images remain on view. This has led to the development of a practice known as “blocking,”(12) which renders the image inaccessible in the reporting country.

Blocking has afforded an opportunity to gain a rare insight into the overall level of illegal activity taking place in this space. Five months after blocking was launched in Denmark in 2006 the Danish police estimated 238,000 users had attempted to reach known illegal child abuse sites.(13) In Norway blocking was stopping between 10 and 12,000 attempts per day. In Sweden it was 20 – 30,000 attempts per day.(14) In 2009, British Telecom (BT) estimated their solution was preventing 40,000 attempts per day to access known child abuse web sites over their broadband network. Extrapolated across the whole UK broadband network this suggests blocking is preventing up to 58 million attempts per year.(15) These are substantial numbers.

The rise of Peer2Peer networks

For the foreseeable future, the worldwide web will remain a key medium for the distribution of child abuse images, but Peer2Peer networks such as Limewire and Gnutella are rapidly growing in importance.

In an in-depth documentary broadcasted on Irish TV on 31 May 2010,(16) it was disclosed that in the past six months a US technology company(17) had traced 1.2 million people in all parts of the world who had accessed child abuse images over a number of Peer2Peer networks. Ireland itself is a small country, with a population of around 4.25 millions and about only 2.8 million Internet users.(18) Yet in a period of 30 days the same US company detected roughly 1,000 individuals in Ireland trading or downloading child abuse images.

Downloading child abuse images is a serious offence against the children depicted and it deserves police attention entirely in its own right, but there is also evidence which suggests that people who get involved in downloading such images may find themselves on a path that ultimately leads them to commit new offences against children, either in the real world or online. This is another major reason for wanting such images to be removed from public view as quickly as possible: it helps reduce the numbers of potential new online and offline child abusers.

Internet is not to blame

The Internet itself is not to blame for any of this. At the end of the day the decision to engage in criminal conduct is the result of a conscious choice made by individuals. But this data underlines the singular role that technology plays in facilitating a range of crimes against children. It reminds us also of the vital importance of law enforcement agencies across the world having the capacity to understand how the technology works, and having trained personnel at hand who can put that knowledge to work to protect children.

* John Carr is Secretary of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and a Senior Expert Adviser to the ITU’s Child Online Protection initiative. He is also a member of the Executive Board of the UK’s Council for Child Internet Safety and a member of the Advisory Council of INHEOP, the global association of internet hotlines.

1    The terms “child abuse images” is used rather than “child pornography” because this more accurately reflects the nature of the content.
2    People Like Us, Sir William Utting, HMSO, London, 1997.
3    See where  “In just one month, the (web site) grossed as much as $1.4 million.” However there is also a substantial trade in the images between collectors who swap rather than sell to each other.
5    Telefono Arcobaleno speak of 36,000 children of whom ‘42% are under 7 years of age and 77% are under the age of 12’
6    Correspondence with the author.
7    Correspondence with the author.
8    Offending and Criminal Justice Group (RDS), Home Office, Ref: IOS 503-03.
9    Broadband access is important because it facilitates rapid and cheap access to large files. Typically child abuse images and videos will be large files.
12    Currently blocking is operational in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Malta, UK, Finland, Iceland, South Korea, the USA and Australia. In March 2010 the Commission of the EU published a proposal which, if adopted, will see every EU Member State becoming engaged with blocking.
16    “Prime Time Investigates.”