Ongoing Child Pornography Distribution Via Peer-to-Peer Networks

peer to peer networks

Last week, we explored the role that escort websites play in child sex trafficking. This week, we are calling attention to the role that peer-to-peer networks play in facilitating the distribution of child pornography.

Look at the child pornography facts. In a 2009 study, nearly 10 million IP addresses were found to be sharing child pornography in the United States alone. In 2011, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Child Victim Identification Program received 17.3 million suspected child pornography images and videos for identification – compared to around 500,000 files that were received in 2004 – an exponential increase.

How is it possible for so many individuals to share so many images so widely? To what extent are the producers of this content being actively pursued and prosecuted? To answer these questions, we must first understand the channels through which individuals share child pornography.

Where is Child Pornography being shared?

The sharing of Child Pornography (or CP) has exploded since the primary means of its acquisition has shifted from printed to digital. Websites, chat rooms, and most importantly peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, have made it possible to easily (and, at times, anonymously) share explicit images and videos of child abuse.

When its first Global Internet Phenomena report came out 12 years ago, the Internet broadband network company Sandvine reported that P2P networks accounted for almost 60% of all Internet traffic. At the time, P2P networks were not used uniquely for sharing child pornography (or adult pornography for that matter). In fact, the majority of P2P traffic was comprised of music, movies, tv shows, and other non-pornographic content.

Today, Sandvine reports that P2P networks still retain 10% of all Internet traffic. While people have turned to Netflix, YouTube and Hulu (collectively accounting for roughly 50% of all internet traffic) to watch tv shows and movies, P2P networks remain a primary channel for individuals seeking to view and distribute child pornography.

Why Peer-to-Peer networks?

In the age of technology, people are continuing to search for new ways to easily share and discover content. Peer to peer networks have long been the digital channel of choice for people to access illegal content. To access a P2P network, users simply download and install a suitable P2P client application. The P2P client application connects to its specific P2P network and thus connects P2P client users with a worldwide network of other users. Once users are connected, they can upload or download files from one another without disclosing much personal information. The P2P web servers that transfer these files – big enough to store millions of files – have been referred to as “the wild west of the internet.” Perpetrators are emboldened by the sheer volume of activity in these networks and by the fact that law enforcement simply can’t go after the millions of people participating in this trade. With this bold approach, files are actively trade with titles that vividly describe the type of abuse the file depicts.

What is being done to combat child pornography?

As peer to peer networks have become the main trading platform for this content, law enforcement has matched with more concentrated investigative efforts in this area. A 2012 study showed that the proportion of all CP possession and distribution-related arrests involving offenders who used P2P networks has increased from 4% of all such arrests in 2000 to 61% in 2009. While law enforcement can’t realistically arrest the millions of people participating in this trade, the open nature of these networks does provide a lot of investigative information for law enforcement and allows them to target those that the feel may also be hands-on abusers, who they identify as top priority. A 2005 study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 16% of investigations of CP possession ended with discovering contact offenders.

What is Thorn doing to combat child pornography?

Thorn works to combat child pornography on mainstream websites as well as on peer-to-peer networks. Developed in conjunction with members of the Thorn Tech Task Force, Thorn’s Shared Hash program is the first industry-wide tool to improve and accelerate the identification, removal and reporting of child pornography across different digital networks. This tool gives these networks the ability to communicate directly and to share digital fingerprints of abuse images via a cloud-based tool, which is helping companies to take a more proactive, rapid response to content on their platforms.

In peer-to-peer networks, where there is no central authority, Thorn operates a deterrence program that makes it more difficult for perpetrators to find the abusive content they are seeking. We also communicate directly with those searching for child abuse content and direct them to resources for help. Thorn’s deterrence messages have been downloaded more than 4 million times.

What can you do to help fight child trafficking and child sexual exploitation? Sign up for Thorn’s updates, including Thorn Alerts, timely notifications of perpetrators being pursued by law enforcement agencies. Or, you can directly support our programs by donating to end child sexual exploitation and stop child trafficking now.