NANDITHA NAIR – DECEMBER 4TH, 2019                                                                                                  EDITOR: LUCIA DARDIS

Porn––it’s almost 2020 and the word remains a taboo in most communities. It has long been legalised in some nations, while in others there’s been an upsurge in conservative attitudes restricting its sale, distribution, and even possession. On top of that, we live in a decade distinguished by data privacy concerns and increasing awareness about data collection by both monolithic companies as well as our own governments. By now, most of us have learned to use incognito mode when it comes to porn—Big Brother might still be watching us but, at the very least, our parents and partners won’t be.

So, what does all this mean for consumers of child “pornography,” more accurately referred to as child sexual abuse materials or CSAMs, in the internet era? Has the demand for CSAM fallen? Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t seem to be a definitive yes. In fact, technological innovations of the past decade, especially in relation to online activity, may be allowing the market for CSAM to grow undetected. To analyze these changes, it’s important to look at the entire history of the market for pornography and, alongside it, CSAM. By studying the evolving means of distribution and the ability––or lack thereof––of law enforcement agencies to regulate these new channels, one gets a clearer picture of this transforming marketplace.

Prior to the digital age, pornography was sold and distributed mainly through mail-order systems or from independent stores, in the form of magazines, books, standalone photographs, or video recordings on various mediums. For the average individual, the very nature of the market for and distribution of pornography presented limitations to anonymity that stymied consumption and allowed law enforcement agencies (LEAs) to limit their growth. What had become a multi-million dollar industry by the 1970s shrunk as a result of LEA actions. Buying these materials in person, or having them appear on your doorstep in less-than-discreet packaging for your neighbours to see, as well as the subsequent challenge of concealing such physical media from the rest of the household, were effective deterrents to entering the pornography market as a consumer. Distributors of pornography could expect similar challenges resulting from societal norms. The key barrier for distributors and consumers of both mainstream porn and CSAM was the question of anonymity––whether the possession of such materials could be traced back to them by society or law enforcement agencies.

Enter the internet. As the online marketplace began to develop in the late 1990s, porn distributors did not fail to see how it could mitigate the effect of societal barriers on demand. Pornographic materials could be viewed when desired before simply closing the browser, leaving no apparent trace of users’ activity. Videos could be streamed rather than having to be downloaded or bought in hard-copy formats. Audio-erotica and new forms of pornographic content, such as live-streaming and erotic videogames, were created. Online activity could still be traced, of course, but with the addition of the private browsing mode to most web browsers by the late 2000s, the online marketplace created a level of anonymity that qualmed the fears of a large number of previously hesitant consumers.  According to a study conducted in 2011, 4% of the top million websites were pornsites and up to 20% of all search engine requests were porn-related, demonstrating the popularity of the internet as a platform for the consumption of porn.

However, technological innovations might be going a step too far. In moving beyond the reach of traditional societal norms which restricted the consumption of porn, have we also cleared the way for the evasion of laws created to protect minors? Producers, distributors, and consumers of CSAM enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom thanks to anonymizing tools that go well beyond the scope of your browser’s private mode. With the advent of unregulated cryptocurrencies, peer-to-peer systems, and hidden marketplaces, the illegal distribution and purchase of CSAM is much more removed from the reach of law. For example, consider Tor, a free software that enables anonymous communication on a hidden network, which is often referred to as the dark web. It’s used for a number of legal and illegal activities, notably by whistleblowers and journalists reporting on ‘sensitive’ topics in countries like China and Iran, where government censorship is highly suffocating. A subset of Tor is Tor hidden services, which ensures the anonymity of servers as well as users by concealing both of their IP addresses. A study of the dark web by the University of Portsmouth researcher Dr. Gareth Owen revealed that 80% of Tor hidden services content constituted child pornography. While CSAM constitutes only 1.5% of Tor traffic as a whole, the study nevertheless demonstrates how anonymizing technologies, alongside promoting freedom of speech, benefit truly vile illegal activities like child sex trafficking. While only a handful of hidden marketplaces exist, it is difficult, and rightly so, to stay objective and refer to statistics when the abuse of children is involved, especially when it is highly likely that any measurements of the prominence of such marketplaces are underestimated due to the anonymity of their operations.

In addition to hidden marketplaces, the emerging internet-based financial system founded on cryptocurrencies has further improved the anonymity of users interested in purchasing illegal materials, whether that be narcotics, weapons, CSAM, or something else altogether. Cryptocurrencies are a mostly unregulated, decentralized, and virtual form of currency. They operate off of blockchain technology, which employs ledgers, or records of transactions, whose copies are stored across various computers that opt into the blockchain network. This ledger can be freely viewed, but access to identifying information about each transaction is limited, albeit not completely anonymous. These features make cryptocurrencies ideal for illegal activity, including the purchase of CSAM.

Do these technological innovations spell the unstoppable rise of hidden markets for CSAM, along with other illegal goods? Not exactly. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Justice brought down an online hidden marketplace for child abuse materials, called “Welcome to Video,” run by Jong Woo Son, a South Korean national. Son had been operating the child “pornography” site, which had a capacity for one million users, for three years. The platform had 250,000 videos and relied on payments through Bitcoin. Similar cases, like the take-down of Freedom Hosting, a Tor web hosting service owned by Eric Eoin Marques that facilitated the sale and distribution of CSAM, or the closure of ChatStep, another CSAM platform, by European authorities have demonstrated the power of cybercrime investigations. These successes are a result of a combination of factors, including international cooperation between LEAs; anonymous tip lines; hacktivist group activities; the development of cybercrime investigation techniques; and knowledge of cryptocurrency tracking, offensive hacking, and decryption of secure communications.

The changing nature of the market for CSAM has led to changes in the goals of investigations as well. In the past, the ease and subsequent reward of reproducing such illegal content for further distribution was low due to a loss in quality of the materials. As a result, investigations were more focused on consumers, often tackling individuals who were found owning large stocks of CSAM. Since possession of CSAM is correlated with exploitative behaviour and abuse, targeting consumers was and remains a reasonable strategy for LEAs. The very nature of digital media allows the rapid reproduction of content without much loss in quality, such that CSAM marketplaces are frequently cloned. This has increased the difficulty of erasing criminal content in its entirety from the web. Today, efforts to dismantle this market have shifted towards targeting its root cause; investigations have moved away from focusing solely on consumers and the closure of online platforms, to increased attempts to identify the abusers and victims involved in the creation of such content. The Welcome to Video case, for example, resulted in the arrests of 337 users as well as the rescue of 23 minors from abusers all over the world. These investigations into individual abusers and victims rely on using clues in the child abuse materials themselves to close in on the geographical locations of where the materials were produced. Since these ‘goods’ are the products of child sex trafficking and child abuse, the growth of this market funds abhorrent activities. Hence, investigative shifts towards producers are essential and acknowledge the fact that the market for CSAM is a market for child abuse itself.

It’s evident that, despite all the anonymizing tools available, LEAs are fighting to stay one step ahead and, as such, hidden online marketplaces are not immune from the risk of discovery and closure by authorities. Juniper Research estimated that the global cost of cybercrime against businesses will total $2.1 trillion by the end of this year. Such figures are an incentive for LEAs to recognize the need to adapt to the changing mediums for illegal activity, including the online CSAM market. For one, this new era of cybercrime calls for increased levels of international cooperation since online activity is often not geographically centralized, and servers hosting illegal content may be far removed from a regional customer base. Secondly, law enforcement agencies must keep up with the times by investing more into cybercrime prevention and digital forensics techniques. This is especially important considering that the CSAM marketplaces that were closed in the past, including Welcome to Video, relied on payments via Bitcoin, which is notorious for its relative lack of anonymity, in comparison to newer cryptocurrencies like Monero and Dash. As the cybersecurity market races to provide ever greater levels of anonymity to its customers, LEAs must be prepared to tackle these developments in order to curb not only child abuse, but also other forms of cybercrime like terrorist activity and the sale of contraband. 

However, these agencies might just be fighting a losing battle. The lack of coherent, international regulation of online activity has long resulted in legal disputes regarding online marketplaces. For example, information (like that from credit card transactions) is often pinged across various international servers even when the sender and the receiver are both located in the same country, and the rendering of a single online service often requires the collaboration of various entities based across the globe. As such, online activity often falls under several jurisdictions, making regulation a near impossible task. The same issues apply to the sale of CSAM. Over the past decade, there has been a rapid growth in the number of countries with ‘legislation sufficient to combat CSAM offenses’ according to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (from 27 in 2006 to 118 in 2018). However, the platforms and the means through which CSAM is distributed—namely, the dark web and digital currencies—remain contentious domains that lack any substantial international regulatory framework. As a result, measures to prevent the growth of online marketplaces for CSAM and any subsequent punitive measures against actors in this market may be limited.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay

Disclaimer: The views published in this journal are those of the individual authors or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Berkeley Economic Review staff, the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UC Berkeley Economics Department and faculty,  or the University of California, Berkeley in general.

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