Fighting the Good Fight Against Online Child Sexual Abuse
“The sites managed to survive so long because the internet provides enormous cover for sexual predators.”
Several websites popular with sexual predators were thwarted last month after a determined campaign by groups dedicated to eliminating the content. It was a rare victory in an unending war.
By GABRIEL J.X. DANCE DEC. 23, 2019
In late November, the moderator of three highly trafficked websites posted a message titled “R.I.P.” It offered a convoluted explanation for why they were left with no choice but to close.
The unnamed moderator thanked over 100,000 “brothers” who had visited and contributed to the sites before their demise, blaming an “increasingly intolerant world” that did not allow children to “fully express themselves.”
In fact, forums on the sites had been bastions of illegal content almost since their inception in 2012, containing child sexual abuse photos and videos, including violent and explicit imagery of infants and toddlers.
The sites managed to survive so long because the internet provides enormous cover for sexual predators. Apps, social media platforms and video games are also riddled with illicit material, but they have corporate owners — like Facebook and Microsoft — that can monitor and remove it.
In a world exploding with the imagery — 45 million photos and videos of child sexual abuse were reported last year alone — the open web is a freewheeling expanse where the underdog task of confronting the predators falls mainly to a few dozen nonprofits with small budgets and outsize determination.
Several of those groups, including a child exploitation hotline in Canada, hunted the three sites across the internet for years but could never quite defeat them. The websites, records show, were led by an experienced computer programmer who was adept at staying one step ahead of his pursuers — in particular, through the services of American and other tech companies with policies that can be used to shield criminal behavior.
But the Canadian hotline developed a tech weapon of its own, a sophisticated tool to find and report illegal imagery on the web. When the sites found the tool directed at them, they fought back with a smear campaign, sending emails to the Canadian government and others with unfounded claims of “grave operational and financial corruption” against the nonprofit.
It wasn’t enough. The three sites were overwhelmed by the Canadian tool, which had sent more than 1 million notices of illegal content to the companies keeping them online. And last month, they were compelled to surrender.
“It’s been a wonderful 7 years and we would’ve loved to go for another 7,” the sites’ moderator wrote in his final post, saying they had closed because “antis,” short for “anti-pedophiles,” were “hunting us to death with unprecedented zeal.”
The victory was cheered by groups fighting online child sexual abuse, but there were no illusions about the enormous undertaking that remained. Thousands of other sites offer anybody with a web browser access to illegal and depraved imagery of children, and unlike with apps, no special software or downloads are required.
The three shuttered sites had hidden their tracks for years using the services of Cloudflare, an American firm that provides companies with cyberprotections. They also found a hosting company, Novogara, that gave them safe harbor in the Netherlands — a small country with a robust web business and laws that are routinely exploited by bad actors.
Cloudflare’s general counsel said the company had cooperated with the nonprofits and law enforcement and cut ties with the sites seven times in all, as they slightly altered their web addresses to evade targeting. A spokesman for Novogara said the company had complied with Dutch law….