EUROPE NOW HOSTING MAJORITY OF CHILD ABUSE IMAGE WEBPAGES, RESEARCH FINDS
Europe has become the global hotbed for hosting child abuse images amid fears predators are exploiting new website addresses to hide indecent material, research suggests.
Data from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found the continent now houses the majority (60%) of the paedophilic webpages it detected online, leapfrogging North America in the last year.
The safety watchdog also found a sharp rise in the number of new website domains - using suffixes such as .ninja as opposed to .com - being tackled for posting abuse images, up 258% (to 272 websites) since 2015.
Its findings come as campaigners warned Theresa May websites on child-themed domains such as .kids face being sold without security preventing known paedophiles from hosting indecent content on them.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) has created more than 1,000 new domains since 2012, websites on which are now being sold off without in-built vetting procedures, a charity coalition said.
The Russian equivalent of .kids is already in use without child-protection safeguards, while Google and Amazon are among parties interested in the English domain, secretary to the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS) John Carr said.
Specialised domain names are gradually being rolled out for specific industries, with the British capital having the .london domain for its businesses.
There has been no indication .kids has yet been exploited by paedophiles, but IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves said: "Criminals will attempt to abuse new technologies for their own gain - in this case it's using new domain names."
Its annual report found a total of 34,212 child abuse images were hosted in Europe in 2016, a rise of 19% on the year before, overtaking North America, where 21,295 were hosted.
It also reported a rise in the number of domains used to host the 57,335 web addresses detected with abuse material - up 21% to 2,416.
This included 92% of such addresses found being focused in five countries: the Netherlands (37%), US (22%), Canada (15%), France (11%) and Russia (7%).
Ms Hargreaves said: "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."
Concerns about the lack of security in child-orientated domains were flagged to the Prime Minister, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley and Home Secretary Amber Rudd in a letter from the CHIS.
The coalition - made up of 10 charities including Barnardo's and the NSPCC - warned the global body for selling domains and web addresses "shows complete indifference towards children's safety".
It added: "Their (Icann's) interest in maximising or securing their revenues appears sometimes to blind them to a larger obligation to protect the weak and vulnerable e.g. in this instance children."
Mr Carr called for buyers of domain names relating to children to have criminal record checks and their identity and address confirmed.
Responding to the IWF's figures, he said: "The criminals have obviously spotted that these new domains now exist where they can sell or distribute child pornography and that should have never been allowed to happen and Icann could have stopped it altogether or mitigated it."