The British ringleader of an international network who shared up to 100,000 indecent images of children on Facebook has been jailed for four years, reports the BBC. The man is a convicted sex offender who set up eleven Facebook accounts to share these images with other child sexual predators through private groups.
It is important to note that these images were not publicly available on Facebook, they were shared privately in the same way this type of criminal content has been shared; through newsgroups, forums, peer-2-peer file sharing, and via other social sites. Access to the images was controlled and required newcomers to provide “credentials”, usually in the form of sharing child-abuse images of their own.
That said, there is no mention of any interactions this pedophile had with minors or adults outside of these private sites, or whether or not he used this or other sites to identify potential new victims.
Concerning factors with this case:
- This convicted sex offender spent 12 months in jail in 2005 for “distributing indecent images of children and committing acts of gross indecency with children”. One year seems awfully lenient for those charges. As does the 4 year sentence this pedophile received for his latest crimes, after admitting to 24 charges of making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. That equates to just 2 months per charge. Or, looked at differently, this man will only spend 21 minutes in jail per instance of child sexual exploitation as documented in the 100,000 images. Explain to each abused child the “justice” in that.
- That 100,000 images of child sexual exploitation were stored on Facebook’s servers without their apparent knowledge is troublesome. Consumer facing websites that accept consumer generated content need to have automated and manual filtering processes in place to screen images and videos. While it is impossible to guarantee that every image of child exploitation will be caught, 100,000 images begs the question of who’s managing the farm.
- In the BBC article, Facebook said that people known to be on the sex offenders register were not permitted to use the site, but it relied on police forces to inform it of new offenders. They also said they would investigate any suspicious activity or abuses reported to the site.
There are two key flaws in Facebook’s position.
- First, only a small fraction of sex offenders are ever be caught, let alone convicted. Facebook’s policy means they willingly let the vast majority of sex offenders on their site unfettered and unmolested – placing the burden on police to cleanse their user base. Responsible consumer facing services must proactively identify and increase moderation of possible bad actors, for the protection of all.
- Second, by taking the position that they will investigate any suspicious activity or abuse reported to them, Facebook seems to place the burden on others – particularly on their users – to rid the site of suspicious activity or abuses. Again, responsible consumer facing services need to proactively monitor users actions for the protection of all. The burden of site management and policy compliance needs to reside with the company, not the consumer, particularly when the consumers may be mere youth.
As an industry, online companies and services need to step up to their responsibilities as stewards of their own sites, or they will surely be forced to do so under less favorable circumstances.
As nations we need to determine the right level of punishment for those who traffic in child exploitation. I would hope the appropriate penalty is greater than 21 minutes per abuse.