The UK’s online child abuse watchdog worked to shut down more than 60,000 web pages over the last year as internet paedophiles used ever-more devious tactics to avoid being caught.
Criminals posting the depraved content are now mostly based in Europe, according to the annual report of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
Such sites were traditionally located in North America, but the number hosted there has fallen after a crackdown, particularly by the US authorities.
European websites hosted 60 per cent of child abuse images discovered by the IWF in 2016. Most of this came from just three countries - some 37 per cent was in the Netherlands, up from 19 per cent the previous year, while 11 per cent was in France and 7 per cent in Russia.
The proportion of abuse images hosted by websites in North America stood at 37 per cent last year – 22 per cent in the US and 15 per cent in Canada.
In 2015, 57 per cent of the illegal images found by the IWF was from websites in the US (37 per cent) and Canada (20 per cent).
Only 0.1 per cent of child abuse content discovered in 2016 was on UK websites.
Meanwhile, offenders are using new tactics such as masking access to illegal imagery so it can only be accessed by following a set sequence of links, which the IWF likens to a ‘trail of breadcrumbs’.
Anyone not using the specific sequence finds legitimate websites, usually adult pornography.
The IWF says the number of child abuse images websites using the method more than doubled last year to 1,572, up from 743 in 2015.
The IWF says the practice is an example of how ‘criminals continually change how they hide the illegal imagery’, forcing its experts to constantly adapt.
The Cambridgeshire-based organisation, a registered charity set up 20 years ago and funded by UK internet service providers, has also found internet paedophiles are exploiting the expansion of domain names to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Traditionally, domain names were restricted to a few generics such as .com or .biz, otherwise to the country of origin, such as .uk, but can now refer to anything including types of entertainment, company brands or political causes.
Since relaxation of the rules in 2011, the variety of domain names used by paedophiles has soared.
Web pages found to contain child sexual abuse images by the IWF in 2016 were hosted on 2,416 domains, up a fifth from 1,991 domains in 2015, making the content harder to track down.
In total, the IWF investigated 105,420 reports last year after tip-offs from the public and its own research. Some 59,550 items of illegal content were discovered – down 13 per cent on 2015.
But Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, accused some internet companies – particularly in Europe - of ‘doing nothing’ to address the problem and called on them ‘to step up and work with us.’
She added: ‘The shift of child sexual abuse imagery hosting to Europe shows a reversal from previous years.
‘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.’
Miss Hargreaves acknowledged that new techniques such as disguised links ‘make it harder for us and other hotlines to find the child sexual abuse images’.
But she said: ‘We have a strong, global network of hotlines and police partners across the globe. We train others in how to unmask this technique and have had great success in taking these websites down.
‘In one example, where we worked with police in the Cayman Islands, a man was convicted.’
The IWF works with authorities worldwide and has set up ‘reporting portals’ in 16 more countries to receive tip-offs.
The watchdog says it can act swiftly to have illegal content removed. In one case, it received a report in December via its portal in India, about videos showing sexual abuse of babies.
The offending website was found to be based in Russia, and after the IWF notified authorities there, the host website, which contained more than 200 depraved videos, was removed within 24 hours.
The report was backed by children’s charity the NSPCC which said there remains an ‘escalating demand’ for child abuse material.
A spokesman said: ‘We must never forget that there is a victim behind every child sexual abuse image, and every time these horrific pictures are viewed a child is re-abused.
‘Anyone who wilfully seeks out this material is complicit in fuelling this appalling industry.
‘To stamp out this crime altogether we must tackle the escalating demand for child abuse material by finding out what deters offenders and potential offenders from viewing child sexual abuse images.’
Despite the work of the IWF, major internet companies have been accused of continued inaction by critics, including the family of five-year-old April Jones, who was abducted and murdered by paedophile Mark Bridger in 2012 after he looked at internet child abuse images.
Last month, April’s sister Jasmine said search engines had failed to respond to their campaign to clean up the web, adding: ‘Internet search engines know what you’ve been looking for, so they could actually forward that on to the police and say, “this has popped up in this area, can you take a look at it?”’
‘We’ve heard nothing from the search engines, absolutely nothing.’
She spoke after it emerged Facebook had failed to take down images of child pornography when alerted by BBC journalists and instead reported the broadcaster to police when it tipped them off to the problem.
In February, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, said low risk offenders viewing child pornography who do not pose real danger to children should not be jailed as forces are swamped with child abuse cases.
He called for offenders to receive treatment instead, but it emerged yesterday that there is only one place in the UK offering treatment for paedophiles.
The number of sex offenders in prison has reached its highest level since 2002 with 13,000 behind bars which is a nine per cent rise on last year.
Watchdog shuts down 60,000 child abuse web pages in a year as it says offenders are using new tactics to mask access Richard Marsden the Daily Mail 3 April 2017