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Thursday, October 16, 2014 

Not a statement from John Grisham.

(This is a post about child abuse and paedophiles.  I despise "trigger warnings", but considering the content on this occasion thought it should be made clear.)

The reaction to John Grisham's remarks in his Telegraph interview has been all too familiar.  His argument, which it must be said is not wholly convincing in itself and certainly lacked in delivery, was there is a major difference between someone who finds themselves prosecuted for downloading a small number of indecent images of a post-pubescent child and someone who actively abuses a child.  Grisham was talking in the context of America in particular jailing far too many people, including "60-year-old white guys" who "drunkenly" search out such things, relating an anecdote about an old friend from law school caught up in a "honey trap" operation by Canadian police.  The Telegraph itself notes a study from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found the average sentence for possessing child pornography had doubled since 2004, from 54 months to 95.

Jon Brown of the NSPCC, talking to the BBC, repeated the regularly heard claim that "every time these images are clicked on or downloaded it creates demand that ultimately fuels more child abuse".  In the Guardian, Suzanne Ost writes that "seeking out these images can encourage the market and thus the abuse of more children to fulfil demand".  Which raises the following questions: what kind of a market is there in child abuse images?  Does one exist at all, and if it does, what form does it take?  Does it adhere to the classical laws of supply and demand?  Does it resemble the market for adult pornography, or say the one for illegal drugs?

Attempting to answer those questions is as you might expect, incredibly difficult to next to impossible.  What we do know is that child pornography operated for an extremely short period of time as an above ground industry, and only then in a tiny number of countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, although magazines were also produced in this country as well the United States.  When it comes to the internet era, less than 10 years ago research suggested a "substantial amount, if not most" of the child abuse imagery circulating could still be traced to this period, roughly between 1969 and 1987, when one of the last mail order magazines was closed.

This will have undoubtedly changed since then. There is still relatively little however to suggest there is a market for child abuse images beyond the relatively small paedophile communities established on private forums, and most notably, on the so-called "dark net(s)".  Nor with the exception of the occasional professional operation, mostly based in eastern Europe, have there been what can be described as commercial producers of "new" child abuse material rather than simply distributors of that which already existed.  Most of the forums and sites to be found on the dark net, of which there have been a dwindling number since the shutting down of Freedom Hosting, require registration, with the most "exclusive" even requiring that prospective members first upload child abuse images they have obtained from elsewhere before they are given access.

One of the best insights we have into the volume of child abuse material available online was provided by the Anonymous raids on Lolita City, with those behind the hacking of the site claiming it hosted over 100GB of indecent images.  Anonymous first discovered Lolita City and the hosting of child pornography on Tor via the Hidden Wiki; the wiki itself claims that a month before it closed, Lolita City hosted 1.4 million images.  How far the Hidden Wiki can be relied upon is obviously open to question, as with any wiki: one of its pages attempts to do nothing less than provide a "history of CP", including describing in graphic detail the abuse of children depicted in some of the videos presumably available via the sites it provides links to.  The page for one of the newest established forums, up only since August, claims it already has over 110,000 registered users.  For context, the BBC suggested that Black Market Reloaded had around 300,000 registered users back in December, while the FBI indictment against Ross Ulbrict, the alleged owner of the Silk Road marketplace, claims it had 957,079 registered users.  The BBC also in June conducted an interview with a self-described former operator of a dark net paedophile forum, which he said had 40,000 registered users.  His own cache of material amounted to "12 gigabytes".

We can't of course know how much of the hosted and exchanged material would be found to be indecent under the Protection of Children Act.  There has long for instance been a demand for "non-nude" images of children, and on some of these forums they would almost certainly be hosted alongside the illegal content.  Without doubt the most widely available indecent content is that categorised as Level 1, erotic posing without sexual activity.  This raises the question of how erotic posing is defined, as past controversies have centred around.  By the same token, the rarest is likely to be Level 5, which involves either sadism or bestiality, referred to by some paedophiles as "hurtcore", although it would presumably also comprise some of Level 4, defined as penetrative sexual activity between children and adults.

None of which answers the question of whether merely viewing an indecent image, beyond its illegality, really does encourage the abuse of more children, taking out of the equation for the moment whether doing so can encourage the viewer himself to either abuse a child or lead to the belief that sexual attraction to children is normal.  Certainly, the forums hosted on Tor would soon wither if there was no new material posted, and they are without doubt used by abusers themselves to share images and videos of their crimes, and are encouraged to continue by their fellow abusers.  At the same time, it is far too simplistic to claim as Brown does that "every time these images are clicked ... it creates demand".  It's certainly arguable that this could be the case if some of the admins of these sites were producers of material, and also if they were charging for access to it.  Very few if any are.  Even those actively seeking out material through web searches or on "clear net" p2p services are unlikely to be creating further demand, mainly because the battle against abuse imagery has been so successful when it comes to the overground.  The image Brown conjures up is one analogous to that of the adult pornography business, which could not survive even in its current emasculated form without consumers being willing to pay for content.  It just doesn't work like that, and never really did.

Ost in her piece goes on to further describe how viewing child abuse images harms beyond the simple market and demand argument, and on this she is on far sturdier ground, also pointing out how much harder it is to stumble across such material than it once was.  One wonders though whether the immediate criticism of Grisham in such condemnatory terms really helps anyone.  It certainly doesn't add to our understanding of how online paedophiles are currently organised or how they operate, nor does it do anything but further stigmatise those attracted to children who have no intention of acting on their feelings.  It could however push them towards others who do.  Surely that's something no one wants, regardless of how paedophiles as a whole are viewed.

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