CLEVELAND — Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have introduced a bill intended to fight back against the exploitation of children online.
The bill, introduced by Representative Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16) in the House, would double the amount of time companies must preserve information about images or videos of child sexual abuse that they report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“The way the law currently works, the companies themselves can hold these images for only 90 days,” Gonzalez said. “After 90 days, they have to delete them.”
Gonzalez said that was intended to ensure privacy, but instead it “ended up creating a little bit of a loophole for bad actors to get in there and traffic these horrible images.”
He said the goal of the bill was to enable law enforcement to track down images and perpetrators more effectively.
“There is such a backlog of images that that means there are a ton of images out there that never get processed and never get looked at by law enforcement, which means that there are criminals who are never getting investigated,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that as a new parent, he and his wife frequently talk about how they’ll raise children in the 21st century, “with all the different pressures and technologies and what that looks like. It’s going to be different for us than it was for our parents, certainly. This is something that we talk about a lot and how do we protect our own children from these sorts of things.”
Gonzalez has been looking into this issue for some time, but he said he recently saw a New York Times investigation that showed the scale of this problem.
“Then we saw the report, just right next door to what was my campaign office in Strongsville,” Gonzalez said. “We had a priest in Strongsville who was trafficking child pornography and ultimately was arrested. The good news is he was arrested. Obviously, the bad news is this can happen anywhere, in any community.”
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Gonzalez said the bill is sponsored by several Republicans and several Democrats in both houses of Congress and he does not anticipate any controversy surrounding it.
“I think everybody’s for protecting our children from child pornographers, and so that’s the goal of our legislation, so we’re going to keep at it,” Gonzalez said.
The magnitude of the problem
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, since the creation of its CyberTipline in 1998, more than 42.9 million reports of child sexual abuse imagery came in through November 20, 2018.
The Child Victim Identification Program has reviewed more than 267 million images and videos, and more than 15,800 victims have been identified by law enforcement.
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a unit of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, said the number of cyber tips it gets has increased dramatically in the last few years, due to social media.
“Maybe three, four years ago, there was only a couple thousand per year,” said Carl Sullivan, supervisor of the task force. “Now, this year, we’re gonna hit almost 7,000 cyber tips per year.”
Sullivan said finding perpetrators isn’t always simple, as the task force gets its leads from NCMEC in the form of images, videos and IP addresses.
“We have to send preservation letters, do search warrants, subpoenas,” Sullivan said. “And sometimes 90 days just isn’t enough time to get everything done.”
He said that the extra 90 days outlined in the new bill “is very helpful.”
“Obviously we do the best with what we have, but it just depends because certain priorities come first, like if it’s a priority one where a child is in danger right then and there, we have to respond to that no matter what,” Sullivan said. “So when there’s an increase in higher-level priority cases, then the other ones, it takes a little longer to investigate. And we need the time to make sure that these images and videos don’t disappear, so that we’re letting maybe somebody who’s exploiting children go.”