The majority of indecent images and videos of children posted online are now hosted in Europe, according to the latest annual report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
Sixty percent of all child sexual abuse content was hosted in European countries last year, an increase of 19% on 2015, according to the IWF study. The Netherlands was found to host the most illegal content of all European nations, which for the purposes of the report includes Turkey and Russia.
Europe replaced North America – which was found to be the source of 37% of online child abuse images and videos last year – as the world’s primary host of paedophilic digital material. In contrast, the UK was found to host just 0.1% of global online child abuse imagery.
“The shift of child sexual abuse imagery hosting to Europe shows a reversal from previous years,” IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves commented.
“Criminals need to use good internet hosting services which offer speed, affordability, availability and access. Services which cost nothing, and allow people to remain anonymous, are attractive.”
“Whilst it’s positive that the UK continues to remain hostile to child sexual abuse material, the global picture isn’t good.”
In total, the number of sites hosting child abuse material increased 21% to 2,416 last year, the report said.
The IWF also found that tech-savvy paedophiles are using a range of new techniques to hide child abuse content from regular users of the open internet, while making it accessible to those who wish to view it.
The foundation noted a 112% increase in the use of masking techniques that allow distributors of child abuse material to leave images and videos hidden in plain sight on seemingly legitimate websites, and even behind bogus 404 error message pages.
Some 1,572 websites were found to be using this technique last year, an increase on the 743 identified in 2015. By way of comparison, just 353 child sex abuse sites were found to be masked in 2013.
“Criminals using the disguised website technique make it harder for us and other hotlines working in this space to find the child sexual abuse images,” Hargreaves said.
The report was published as UK child protection charities warned that new internet domain suffixes including .kids are being sold without basic child protection safeguards in place.
Campaigners say the .kids suffix is already in operation in Russian with no measures in place to prevent it from being used by convicted paedophiles to distribute child abuse material.
In a letter to British MPs highlighting the responsibilities of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation responsible for namespaces on the internet, the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety said: “ICANN could have chosen not to proceed [with these new domain suffixes] until stronger security measures could be put in place to reduce the scope for misuse, perhaps by insisting that the true identities and location details of every web site owner are verified and known. They didn’t do this.”