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Why it’s so hard to stop images of child sex abuse

The number of horrific images of sexual abuse against children being posted on the Internet has exploded in recent years. A New York Times investigation found that technology platforms like Facebook and Google reported some 45 million videos and photos last year — more than double the amount from the year before. Amna Nawaz discusses the problem with Donna Rice Hughes of Enough Is Enough.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There has been a explosion in the number of images of sexual abuse against children posted on the Internet in recent years.

    It is the focus of an investigation by The New York Times that we are going to talk about tonight.

    But a warning that some viewers, especially with children in the room, may find this conversation disturbing.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the sheer amount of content has soared, despite efforts to crack down over the last decade.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the numbers are stunning.

    According to The Times, technology platforms like Facebook and Google reported some 45 million videos and photos of children being sexually abused last year. That is more than double the number found the previous year.

    Now, The Times called the images horrific, portraying children, some as young as 3 or 4 years old, suffering abuse, in some cases physical torture, at the hands of adults. The report also outlines how law enforcement and others are struggling to track and curb the crimes by the perpetrators.

    Donna Rice Hughes is an advocate for child safety online and president and CEO of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the Internet safer for children and families, particularly by confronting child sexual abuse and predation.

    Donna, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So that number, 45 million, help me understand that. Is that a problem that's been getting worse and worse, or are authorities just better at detecting what's out there?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    It's a problem that's getting worse and worse and authorities are better at detecting this.

    But we started to see the beginning of child sex abuse images coming into the Internet world at the advent of the Internet. In fact, that was a lot of the early driver of the Internet, that type of content and illegal adult pornography as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So in other words, this problem has been around for years and years.

    Has it been steadily getting worse, or has there been a recent jump?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Well, it's — a number of things have happened.

    I call it the perfect storm, if you will, because the Internet actually created the ideal scenario for sexual predators to create new child pornography images and to share those. It actually created a forum to share how to avoid law enforcement detection and to virtually molest children.

    Now predators can gather together from all over the world and watch another predator sexually abuse a child in real time virtually. So all of these things have happened.

    And then, when Web 2.0, which is when the social media world came into being in 2002 to 2004, that changed everything, because now you have a platform where anyone can be a creator of content.

    And so that magnified the problem. We have had a number of laws, including one of the ones that was mentioned in this article, the PROTECT Act of 2008. And they did a great job laying out a wonderful strategy.

    And now what we know from this piece — this article in The New York Times is that not all of that has been done. And there's been $60 million appropriated, but only half is actually funded each year, and some of that is being taken from the cyber-crimes budget and being put someplace else.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let's break that down a little bit to understand some of these steps, because you mentioned it's been around for years. There have been a number of steps taken to try to address it.

    It's not like authorities don't know this is going on. These are reported cases.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Right. Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what is supposed to happen? When a Google or a Facebook says, we found these videos, what is supposed to happen, in an ideal scenario, then?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Well, they're supposed to report it right away. And that law actually outlined what they're supposed to report.

    Now, oftentimes, they don't have all the data to report, but they have also gotten very lax. Additionally, at the Department of Justice, they created a position, a wonderful position for someone to be the quarterback of all of this, but that person was never given the authority or even all of the funding to do this.

    So I am so glad that this article came out, because it shows where we have fallen down and what we need to do. But there's even more — $60 million isn't enough anymore. And now you have got the evolution of the Dark Web and anonymizing tools.

    So, that's going to make it even worse. Facebook is looking at creating an anonymizing tool, so that Messenger is encrypted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the funding part of it, the $60 million in that last bucket, only half of which, I understand, was ever appropriated to go to all the authorities trying to address this.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Yes. Right. Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So is this purely a funding problem? Is it a priority problem? Is it a staffing problem? What's going on? And why are authorities so overwhelmed?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Well, it's all of the above.

    It's funding. You need funding to staff. You need funding to get the technology. And it needs to be a top priority. And so we actually wrote the Children's Internet Safety Presidential Pledge, and both Clinton and Trump got behind that.

    And we believe that the White House…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This was back before the election, we should mention.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    This was before the election.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You got both candidates to…

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Yes, both candidates to make the protection of children in the digital age a top priority, not from just child sexual abuse images, but from trafficking, also from the pornography problem, because you have got to go at this like a war with all hands on deck.

    And you can't just target one piece of this, and not the other piece of this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also mentioned a word we hear a lot, which is encryption, right?

    A lot of these social media companies, a lot of these platforms offer encryption as a safe space where you can have private conversations.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's also being exploited by exactly these kinds of criminals.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, where's the accountability for the people who host those sites and host those platforms?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    There needs to be more accountability, in my opinion. And there's not.

    And so I would like to see more oversight with that. The high-tech industry typically avoids any kind of a mandate. They want to do everything voluntarily. But they do fall short. They fall short in a lot of areas.

    And I believe — and I believe that your audience would agree with me — that we have to put the protection and the safety and the innocence of children over the privacy of some people that might want to encrypt their data.

    And another thing is, the United States is number two in the world for hosting child pornography Web sites.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Number two in the world right now?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Number two in the world.

    We were number one, until a couple of years ago, according to the Internet Watch Foundation. That is absolutely horrendous. And we're number one as far as hard-core, obscene pornography, which is also not protected speech. They each fuel the other.

    So we have to say, enough is enough.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think we can all agree that more needs to be done to protect children in these circumstances. And there's probably a whole world of things that need to be addressed.

    But if you had to pinpoint one or two things that could be done right now, what would those — what would those be?

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Well, they would be for there to be enough funding for everything that was in the PROTECT Act, that the appropriation needs to be bigger than $60 million.

    And we need to have the governors, the president, the U.S. attorneys and the Department of Justice make this issue as top priority as all the other issues that we talk about on the news just about every night.

    This needs to be front and center, because this is the innocence of our children, and not just America's children, but children all over the world. And they can't speak for themselves. They need us. And that's part of the compelling role of the government, is to protect them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You want to see more from your leaders.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Donna Rice Hughes, president and CEO of Enough Is Enough, thank you for being here.

  • Donna Rice Hughes:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And if you or someone else you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

    If you are concerned about a child being exploited, or about explicit content being posted, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited children at 1-800-THE-LOST. Or go online with a tip at cybertipline.org.

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