Unwanted top spot
On 24 April, a major Dutch news outlet ran the headline "Half of child sex abuse images on the internet are hosted in the Netherlands". The assertion was based on information from the British Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). The headline figure is debatable, according to INHOPE, the international network organisation that fights the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. However, it's a well-publicised and undeniable fact that the Netherlands does host a lot of this objectionable material. INHOPE puts our country in second place globally, hosting 19 per cent of reported images, while the US heads the list with 43 per cent.
"One of the most destructive forms of crime"
Regardless of the exact percentage, two questions arise: why is the Netherlands such a popular place for hosting child sex abuse images? And what are we doing about it? We are, after all, talking about what Dutch Justice minister Grapperhaus rightly described as "one of the most destructive forms of crime".
Downside of success
In answer to the first question, people often point to the Netherlands' excellent digital infrastructure. It's extensive, fast and stable. Our country also has a large, dynamic hosting industry, offering great choice and high-quality services at competitive prices. Including unmanaged hosting services, which are particularly attractive to people looking to make abusive material available on line. In other words, the argument goes, an association with child pornography is the unpalatable downside of success.
Could abuse prevention be more effective?
While the Netherlands does indeed have an excellent digital infrastructure, we certainly don't have the fastest internet in the world, or the best connectivity. South Korea and various Scandinavian countries score better on both counts. Yet they aren't identified by the IWF or INHOPE as major child porn-hosting nations. And that has often prompted me to wonder whether we aren't overlooking something when it comes to understanding our country's high position in this infamous league. Could it be that our efforts to tackle the problem are less effective than those in comparable countries? Is there less deterrence here?
Legally borderline, morally far beyond the pale
It's generally recognised that we have some bad hosters here in the Netherlands: firms that, extraordinary as it seems to most, have a business model based on hosting child pornography. They don't respond to notices from the Reporting Hotline for Internet Child Pornography, and they'll take material down only if ordered to by a court. Even then, they leave acting until the very last moment, because time is money. Their operations are legally borderline, and morally far beyond the pale.
However, bad hosters aren't responsible for all the material out there. Much of it is hosted by legitimate service providers, who simply don't know -- or have no way of knowing -- that it's there. Such firms do respond when issues are drawn to their attention.
Wider, intensified strategy
And so to the second question posed above: what are we doing about it? The Netherlands has the Reporting Hotline for Internet Child Pornography, which has been active for some years, handling a spiralling number of abuse reports. Although it's funded by the government, the EU and the business community, money is not infrequently an issue for the Hotline.
The sense of fighting an uphill battle has led the Hotline, the government and various companies to meet quite regularly in recent years. In the latter part of 2018, that resulted in plans for a wider, intensified strategy with four key features:
The Reporting Hotline for Internet Child Pornography is now named in the Dutch Notice and Take Down Code as 'trusted notifier', meaning that material flagged up by the Hotline should be taken down within 24 hours.
A monitoring system developed by Delft University of Technology has been deployed, so that abusive content reports can be followed up and the websites, servers and companies involved can be mapped. Firms that don't act on reports can therefore be identified and taken to task.
A legal procedure for dealing with bad hosters has been drawn up and adopted, as a basis for action against firms that don't cooperate promptly with the Hotline.
A database of hash codes linked to previously encountered images of child pornography has been made accessible, so that responsible hosting service providers can automatically scan uploads to make sure they don't include the images.
If all elements of this public-private strategy are properly implemented, I'm hopeful that we'll see a positive effect. Time will tell whether that hope is justified. And, indeed, whether the effect is more than the mere displacement of material from the Netherlands to other countries. Because, what we ultimately want is, of course, to bring about a downturn in the hitherto rising global prevalence of abusive images.
Finally: what is SIDN doing?
The top-level domains most often used for sharing child pornography are .com, .net and .ru. It's ten years since SIDN last received a report of under-age porn linked to a .nl domain.
We're totally committed to making .nl as safe and positive as we possibly can -- by strict adherence to the Notice and Take Down Code, for example. And we're equally committed to the safety of the internet in the Netherlands. As evidenced by our involvement in the updated strategy outlined above, and our support for the Reporting Hotline for Internet Child Pornography.