INHOPE: Stop treating art as child abuse!

People are being arrested because of drawings—and the organizations that we trust to fight child sexual abuse online are responsible. We need your help to stop this, because it is putting innocent people’s lives in danger.

Hotlines for reporting illegal sexual images of minors play a vital role in the removal of such images from the Internet, and many of them operate with special powers from government to carry out this task. Yet Prostasia Foundation’s investigation has revealed that key members of INHOPE, the international association of Internet hotlines, are receiving and acting on reports of images that don’t depict real children at all… and that this is being used to criminalize LGBTQ+ people and artists.

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To give just two examples of this growing human rights scandal:

Criminal charges like this must be stopped. 

Although it takes time to change the law, we can create change right now by telling the Internet hotlines that drawings are not the same as child sexual abuse, and asking them to stop accepting reports of such images, which are being used to criminalize innocent people.

If people have a problem with explicit artworks, the right solution to that problem is to make it easier for such people to avoid seeing them. Prostasia Foundation’s No Children Harmed certification program explains how artists and Internet companies can do this—and nobody needs to be thrown in jail.

Treating artists, fans, and LGBTQ+ people as criminals is wrong. Speak out today by telling INHOPE that its members should not be treating art as child abuse. With your help, we can stop this madness and refocus the priorities of INHOPE members where they should be—on the protection of real children from abuse.

INHOPE: Stop treating art as child abuse!

Dear Mr Howard,

As the international association of Internet reporting hotlines, INHOPE and its members are charged with a vital responsibility to help rid the world of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and to ensure that those who produce and share it are reported to authorities. Because of the gravity of the content involved, most hotlines are either government-run or are granted statutory authority to act without the safeguards that the public would normally demand for a body exercising such sweeping censorship powers.

That's why we are very concerned that several of your members are misusing this important and trusted public charge to censor works of art, and to criminalize those who create and produce it. These actions disproportionately affect those from marginalized artistic and LGBT communities, and have resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of people who are innocent of any wrongdoing against children. One of these is a 17 year old Costa Rican girl, who was arrested for posting drawings to her blog, on a referral from the Canadian Center for Child Protection. In another case, a Russian transgender woman was sentenced to three years imprisonment for posting cartoon images to social media.

In May this year the UK’s Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse heard that reports received by the National Crime Authority from the United States hotline NCMEC included large numbers of non-actionable images including cartoons, along with personally identifiable information of those responsible for uploading them. According to Swiss police, up to 90% of the reports received from NCMEC relate to innocent images.

We ask you to communicate to INHOPE members that this is not acceptable. The responsibility that they have been entrusted with is a responsibility to protect children from the direct harm that occurs when photographs and videos of their sexual abuse are disseminated. International human rights law allows a narrow justification for the criminalization of such abusive content. But according to Daniel Møgster from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights who spoke on this topic in October, the same justifications are much weakened in the case of virtual images that do not depict a real child:

"Even if the state might have a legitimate objective for restricting this type of material, you still have the principle of legality, and as previously mentioned, there is a requirement that laws be clear, especially criminal laws. … It is [also] crucial for any imposition of criminal sanctions that it doesn’t overreach, and the state has the burden of proof to justify that any measure is in fact covering no more than what it needs to cover."

This does not mean that more proportionate steps cannot be taken to prevent the dissemination of offensive art. For example, images that infringe an Internet platform's terms of service can be removed, and platforms should support the tagging of explicit content to allow it to be hidden from children and from others who do not wish to view it. Prostasia Foundation has a set of guidelines called No Children Harmed that suggest best practices for how to deal with such content, without treating it as equivalent to images of real children being sexually abused. INHOPE members should not conflate art with such abuse images.

We recognize that INHOPE and its members do not write the laws of some countries that make certain artistic representations unlawful, and we take issues with those laws also. However, just as police forces and prosecutors exercise a discretion over which suspects should be arrested and which charges brought before a jury, so too INHOPE members have a discretion in how they execute their public or quasi-public censorship functions. We ask that INHOPE members prioritize the removal of images that depict actual children being sexually abused, rather than the censorship of images that are merely considered to be immoral or offensive. Specifically, artistic images should not be added to image hash lists that INHOPE members maintain, and should not be reported to authorities, unless required by the law where the hotline operates.

The extensive powers that INHOPE members enjoy are a reflection of the gravity and importance of their role. However as a matter of human rights law, the exercise of those powers is difficult to justify except when they are directed against actual images of child sexual abuse. In particular, the use of those powers to censor artistic images has resulted in the persecution of stigmatized minorities. We call on you and your members to end this practice immediately, and to return to their original important role of eliminating CSAM—images of real children being sexually abused.

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