On the 22nd of August 1984, Police were called to the Holiday Inn in Eindhoven because a porn actress had been found dead of a cocaine overdose. She was later identified as Thea Puymbroeck. She was 6 years old.
What transpired during the investigation was that many, many red flags were missed by all those we expect to see them. Police, social services, and indeed her family were all aware that she was being abused and was being exposed to sexual and drug abuse. Coby Kruijswijk, a neighbour, and the person who cared for Thea most during her short life had been in touch with anyone who would listen about the abuse. Nobody listened. Thea finally died while a movie was being made of her sexual abuse in a hotel and her death was put down to a drug overdose. One would like to think that we could do better today, with increased awareness and increased investment in social services, procedures and laws. One would like to think….
We should never forget that what underpinned the death of Thea was an insatiable desire from some people for new child sexual abuse material (CSAM). That desire still exists today.
The 2021 Octopus conference on Cybercrime by the Council of Europe has just finished and as usual they had a some very useful presentations about online sexual abuse. As an organization, they do a lot of fighting against online child exploitation with the Budapest convention being the first to include Child Sexual Abuse Material as a cybercrime (content) and the excellent Lanzarote convention specializing in child exploitation in general and strongly in online child exploitation. 2021’s Octopus conference reminded me of Thea as she had featured in a presentation I gave to the same conference 10 years ago. You can find it here.
As I have already stated, it is important to remember, what happened to Thea in 1984 was fueled by a market for pornography featuring children – children being abused. At that time high quality movies and magazines of child abuse were being produced but there were still significant challenges in distributing it, obtaining it and because of laws passed not long after Thea died, producing it. Soon after this the internet exploded onto the world stage and all barriers both physical and morally were lifted. The internet fueled a resurgence of CSAM availability that the world had never seen and this continues unabated to this day. New material featuring child even younger than Thea appears online every day everywhere on the internet. In fact it is safe to say that no platform is immune. CSAM produced in 1984 is still circulating on the internet as is material produced in 1994, 2004, 2014 and indeed 2021. Each child featured was sexually abused and each child featured must grow up and become an adult knowing that images and movies of their abuse is circulating online. Think about that for a second.
Child Abuse is a stain on every society. The recording of that abuse and it’s subsequent sharing online is an aggravated stain on every society and everyone associated with the internet. The cyber-utopianism that sees company after company come to market without taking into consideration or dealing with the misuse of their platforms is another aggravating factor. It’s a no-brainer but it’s a cost to the bottom line, so they ignore it until forced not to.
What is perhaps disheartening about the text of the talk I presented in 2011 is it is full of optimism, proud of the progress we had made to that point in removing CSAM from the Internet (especially the web). I also evoked the challenges that remained such as the failure of self-regulation, the lack of investment by law enforcement, a lack of understanding among policy makers, prosecutors and Judges about the seriousness of the issue and the challenges imposed by encryption. All of those remain today, along with new challenges of which there are many. (Think #cyrptocurrency.)
The closing lines of my talk in 2011 were as follows;
Advocacy for sex with children, access to Child Abuse Material and access to children continue unabated on the Internet. Only by all sectors of society working together can we hope to improve.
Nothing in that statement has changed in 10 years. Is it likely to change in the next 10? The EU commission is working on regulation for the online service providers that should bring change in the same way GDPR did. If the EU does its job properly and does not allow the hard-line privacy advocates to win the day it should be revolutionary and protect countless children from further abuse, revictimization and prevent people from accessing material which is fuelling ongoing actual abuse of real children. Finding and removing child sexual abuse material from the internet should be the job of those who own the networks that creates the network of networks. They are the only ones who can. They are also the only ones who can ensure the privacy of users.
Somewhere in the middle there must be ground where both of these ideals can be satisfied and this plague arrested so that in 2031 we’ll have more to cheer about.