A year in review: the work of INHOPE member hotlines in the fight against CSAM

Removing illegal material that depicts the sexual abuse of real children from the internet makes a significant impact on our society. This content is often shared and distributed across borders through the internet, underscoring the importance of working collectively as a worldwide network. The work done by INHOPE hotlines includes not only removing such material online but also providing key intelligence to law enforcement partners which leads to the safeguarding of victims and the identification of perpetrators. 

Date 2024-03-27 Author INHOPE Section hotlines Topic potentially harmful content Audience organisations and industry, research, policy and decision makers
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As the leading global network combatting online child sexual abuse material (CSAM), INHOPE member hotlines have established an effective and well-recognised mechanism for the rapid removal of CSAM within Europe and around the world. Across the INHOPE network, over 200 hotline analysts work every day to find and remove illegal content from the internet and to share data with law enforcement so they can identify victims and perpetrators. Hotline analysts are the first responders in the fight against CSAM, and their expertise and incredible dedication have contributed to the removal of millions of instances of CSAM online every year. 

The work of European hotlines in 2023 

Every quarter, European hotlines that receive co-funding from the European Commission submit data via the Assessment Platform on the reports received from the public. These data include total number of reports received, types of reports, the hosting location of the reported content, and the actions taken on received reports. 

In 2023, European hotlines experienced a significant increase in the number of total reports received, reaching a total of 1,428,552 reports compared to 886,797 in 2022. This rise can be attributed to various factors, such as the increasing visibility of hotlines, the growing public awareness of what and how to report, and the work of proactive CSAM search by several hotlines. Additionally, the Dutch hotline, Meldpunt Kinderporno, operating in the Netherlands, where a large amount of illegal content is hosted, received a significant number of reports in Q2, impacting the overall figures. 

Among the reports received, 355,528 pertained to CSAM, constituting approximately one-fourth of the total reports. This indicates a consistent upward trend in the proportion of CSAM reports compared to previous years. Regarding the location of content reported, the vast majority of all processed reports continue to be from websites publicly displayed on the open internet. Notably, European hotlines also reported upward trends in referrer-based and onion/TOR sites (an acronym for The Onion Router which is essentially a network that masks online traffic). Referrer-based sites are used to send users from one website to another, whereas onion/TOR sites are hosted on the dark web and can only be accessed through onion routing. When it comes to reporting channels, the hotline’s online reporting form and ICCAM* remain the two most common channels for reporting illegal content, as opposed to fax, post, telephone, or SMS. 

(* ICCAM is INHOPE’s secure software solution to collect, exchange and categorise reports on child sexual abuse material (CSAM), funded by the EU. ICCAM is used by INHOPE hotlines in different jurisdictions (countries) and INTERPOL. The name ICCAM is derived from the phrase “I see child abuse material”.) 

Key trends observed in the online world 

In addition to the figures presented, several trends were identified by European hotlines in 2023. The German hotline, jugendschutz.net, observed a rise in cases of sexual harassment on social media. Given the integral role of social media in the identity formation of children and adolescents, these platforms have become crucial to their daily communication and lives. A study conducted by jugendschutz.net on TikTok and Instagram highlights how easily these platforms can become hubs for sexual harassment, targeting children or exposing them to the sexual harassment experiences of others. Various features on these platforms, including comments, private messages, and live streams, can serve as spaces where sexual harassment occurs, and algorithms may contribute to the generation of related inappropriate content. Exposure to sexual harassment content can have a profound negative impact on the development of children and youth, reaching a point where, in severe cases, it poses a direct threat to a minor's safety and well-being. The full report by jugendschutz.net can be read here

Another trend noted by hotline analysts is the emergence of child abuse pyramid (CAP) sites since 2022, which has not only persisted but continued to grow in 2023. Several hotlines, including Child Focus, eco, FSM, and AnmeldDet, reported an increasing number of reports received from these sites in 2023. CAP sites use a form of 'invitation' system in which users are encouraged to share their personal links to invite more external people to the site where CSAM is shown. The more invites they share, the more points they acquire to access illegal content on the site. While most CAP sites can be removed through notice and takedown procedures, handling these sites remains challenging for hotline analysts as they frequently change domain names and hosting services, thus curbing the spread of this trend proves to be difficult. Moreover, these sites often feature auto-play previews of CSAM upon entering, posing immediate harm to all viewers. 

Highlights from the network 

INHOPE hotlines have an unmatched expertise in building relationships with both public and private stakeholders. In 2023, European hotlines continued to showcase their expertise in recognising and reporting harmful content online, joining Trusted Flagger or Trusted Reporter programmes of major online service providers. SafeLine in Greece joined Discord's Trusted Reporter Programme, and BiztonsagosInternet in Hungary also became a member of TikTok's Trusted Reporter Programme and Google's Priority Reporter Programme. By joining such programmes, reports from these hotlines are therefore prioritised for action, emphasising the role of hotlines in identifying illegal content online and facilitating the public to report them. As the Digital Service Act (DSA) came into force in the European Union, the trusted relationship with online service providers and the competence which INHOPE hotlines exhibit underscores their crucial roles in the Trusted Flagger ecosystem under the DSA. In addition to detecting and removing millions of CSAM instances online, INHOPE hotlines advocate for improved laws to enhance child protection in the digital world. Save The Children Denmark (Red Barnet) has exemplified this commitment by submitting a legislative proposal to amend the Danish Criminal Code. The proposal aims to criminalise three additional types of materials, including animated abuse material as AnmeldDet, the hotline operated by Red Barnet, reported a notable increase in animated abuse material in 2023. A parallel trend of increased reports on animated and virtual CSAM is also observed across the INHOPE network. As artificial intelligence (AI) technology develops and animated CSAM becomes more realistic and easier to produce, there is an urgent need for intervention before the internet becomes saturated with lifelike, animated abuse material. The legislative proposal by Red Barnet can be read here

Looking ahead to 2024 

In 2023, hotlines were able to resume full operation since the pandemic, marking a year of remarkable achievements. Nonetheless, several significant factors, such as the escalating reports of extremism and hate speech stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict, the rapid integration of AI in CSAM, along with the constant emergence of new trends, highlight the ongoing challenges faced by hotlines. 

Despite these challenges, the INHOPE network continues to showcase commitment and professionalism in its work, while staying abreast of technological innovations. As we approach the second quarter of 2024, the collaboration among hotlines and their commitment to participate in information exchange remains crucial in the ever-evolving online world. We look forward to increased collaboration with national authorities and industry partners to navigate upcoming and enforced legislative frameworks in the EU, including the DSA, as our collective mission remains—creating a safer internet for kids and a world free from CSAM. 

Discover more about the work of INHOPE at www.inhope.org, and read the INHOPE Annual Report 2023 here

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