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Child abuse images fall under the broader definition of child sexual exploitation, which involves grooming or controlling a child for a sexual purpose.1 One form this abuse can take is to create images or films depicting sexually explicit conduct with, or in the presence of, a child. Such images are frequently referred to as ‘child pornography’, however it is felt by many that this implies some sort of compliance on the part of the child involved.2 Whilst the creation of child abuse images, of course, pre-dates the Internet, this medium has allowed for the distribution of child abuse images on a previously unimaginable scale.

Legal issues

In some countries, the definition has been widened to include real and simulated sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child primarily for sexual purposes (from the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, G.A. Res. 54/263, Annex II, U.N. Doc. A/54/49, Vol. III, art. 2, paragraph c).

Given the global nature of the Internet and the fact that child abuse images (and the criminals who produce it) can cross national borders it has required an international response. The Virtual Global Taskforce (VGT) is an international alliance of law enforcement agencies, governments and industry members working together to protect children from online child abuse. The VGT coordinates the work these various bodies across the globe to close the gaps between national jurisdictions where criminals operate.

The VGT employs a cross sector, collaborative approach and comprises the following members:

Recently, the Virtual Global Taskforce welcomed four private sector partners to its alliance: Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, World Vision Australia, Research in Motion and The Code.3

The Extent of the Problem

The number of images available online is very difficult to determine, however a recent CEOP report puts the number of child abuse images on the Internet in the millions, with reports of seizures of single collections amounting to 2.5 million images alone.4 It is estimated that the number of victims in these images runs into the tens of thousands.5

The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) carries out research in order to determine the scale of the problem as well as how individual countries are dealing with it. Out of 187 Interpol Member Countries:

  • Only 29 have legislation which will combat child sexual abuse offenses.
  • 93 have no legislation at all that specifically addresses child pornography.
  • 36 countries do not criminalize the possession of child pornography, regardless of the intent to distribute.

Further information from ICMEC can be found at

The SAP Scale

In the UK, the severity of child sexual abuse images is defined by the SAP Scale, which incorporates levels set by the Sentencing Advisory Panel.6 This is a five point scale (based on the ten-point Copine scale, devised by the Copine Project7) as shown below.

  1. Images depicting nudity or erotic posing, with no sexual activity.
  2. Sexual activity between children, or solo masturbation by a child.
  3. Non-penetrative sexual activity between child(ren) and adult(s).
  4. Penetrative sexual activity between child(ren) and adult(s).
  5. Sadism or bestiality.

CEO Coalition to Make the Internet a Better Place For Kids

In December 2011, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes launched a coalition of industry leaders to make the Internet a better, safer place for children.8 As part of this coalition she has obtained the commitment of key industry players to ensure the effective takedown of child abuse material. The desired result is a unified strategy for the takedown of child abuse material across European member states, coordinating the efforts of law enforcement agencies, NGOs, industry and hotlines. The process is being facilitated by a Working Group (led by Microsoft) which is committed to demonstrating results by summer 2013.9


Page last reviewed July 27, 2012

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