The Washington Post reports that German prosecutors announced they have broken up one of the world’s largest international platforms for child sexual abuse material—commonly known as “child pornography.” The platform had more than 400,000 registered members and was hosted on the darknet.
Authorities from the Federal Criminal Police Office and Frankfurt prosecutors said that in mid-April, three German suspects who are allegedly the administrators of the “Boystown” platform were arrested along with a German site user. They also searched seven buildings in Germany that were in connection with the child exploitation ring.
After the raids in mid-April, the online platform was shut down.
The authorities said the platform was “one of the world’s biggest child [sexual abuse images] darknet platforms” and had been active at least since 2019. Child abusers reportedly used it to exchange and watch explicit images of children and toddlers being abused, most of them boys, from all over the world.
Prosecutors wrote that they found “images of most severe sexual abuse of toddlers” among the photos and video material.
“The platform had several forums and chats — the illegal pictures and videos were kept in the forums; in the chats, the members could communicate,” prosecutor Julia Bussweiler said. “There were several language channels to facilitate the communication.”
A German police task force investigated the platform, its administrators and users for months in cooperation with Europol and law enforcement authorities from the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, the United States and Canada, the statement said.
The Post reports that three main suspects were a 40-year-old man from Paderborn, a 49-year-old man from Munich and a 58-year-old man from northern Germany who had been living in Paraguay for many years, the prosecutors’ statement said. They worked as administrators of the site and gave advice to members on how to evade law enforcement when using the platform for illegal child pornography.
A fourth suspect, a 64-year-old man from Hamburg, is accused of being one of the most active users of the platform having allegedly uploaded more than 3,500 posts.
“This investigative success has a clear message: Those who assault the weakest aren’t safe anywhere,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. ”That’s what investigators work for day and night, online and offline, globally.”
“We’ll do everything within our power to protect the kids from these disgusting crimes,” he added.
How common are images of child exploitation?
The case of this site is horrific, and exceptionally violent and predatory. But how does it fit into what we know about other crimes involving child sexual abuse imagery?
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) whose CyberTipline is the nation’s centralized reporting system for the online exploitation of children, reported a staggering rise in reports of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) last year.
Numbers were through the roof in 2020 compared to previous years. Total reports to the CyberTipline increased by 28%—from just under 17 million in 2019 to nearly 21.8 million in 2020.
President and CEO of NCMEC John Clark explained that in the year 2020, 10.4 million of the nearly 21.7 million CSAM reports were unique images that had been reported numerous times. “This shows the power of the technology ESPs use to identify these known images of abuse. It also demonstrates the repetitive exploitation occurring, as these images are shared many times, further re-victimizing the children depicted.”
Thorn reports that NCMEC reviews over 25 million images and videos of child pornography every year.
It is a growing issue, with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2016 stating the “expansion of the Internet” was responsible for an increase in the market for CSAM. The next year, the DOJ reported that the number of suspects referred for child sexual abuse material production charges had increased 195% from 2004-2013, while those referred for the possession, receipt, or distribution had increased by 28% in the same period.
While this German case may be unique in the number of users that flocked to this abuse platform, it is not uncommon that abused children are exploited by someone they otherwise trust.
NCMEC reported in 2013 that 25% of children are abused by a family friend or neighbor, and 18%, almost one in every five, by a family member or guardian. While child pornography is made of anyone considered a minor, that is, anyone from age 0-18, the numbers often show that the victims are generally younger.
As an Attorney General said, the only decrease they’ve seen in this issue is tragically, “the age of victims.” In fact, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection found that of the videos and images their team reviewed, almost 80% of children were under 12 years old. Of those, almost 65% were under the age of 8.
Consider, too, that even mainstream porn sites have been investigated recently for reportedly hosting and profiting from child sexual abuse images.
The issue of child pornography is complex, and targets some of the most vulnerable in our society. There is an increasing need to respond to the increasing rates of this crime. The Belgian case is shocking and heartbreaking, yet it shows the gravity and scope of this problem.
To report an incident involving the possession, distribution, receipt, or production of child sexual abuse material, file a report on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)’s website at www.cybertipline.com, or call 1-800-843-5678.