Adults or Sexually Abused Minors? Getting It Right Vexes Facebook

The number of reports of suspected child sexual abuse has risen sharply in recent years. The high volume, estimated to exceed 100,000 in 2009, has affected both the national clearinghouse and law enforcement officials. A 2019 investigation by The Times found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation could manage its case load from the clearinghouse by limiting its focus only to infants and toddlers.

Ms. Davis said the policy barrier resulting in more reports could worsen the barrier. “If the system is full of things that are not useful,” she said, “this creates a real burden.”

But some current and former investigators said the decision should be made by law enforcement.

Chuck Cohen, who has led the Child Abuse Task Force in Indiana for 14 years, said “no one should decide to report a potential crime, especially a crime against a child, because they believe the police are too busy.”

Dana Miller, commander of the same task force in Wisconsin, said tech companies did not know if the report could be useful in furthering the current investigation. “Even though everyone is overwhelmed, we are not comfortable with the blanket statement that we do not want to see those reports,” she said.

Yota Soares, general counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the Centre’s case load “cannot be played here.” She said the image should always be reported if a child could be involved.

How Facebook determines its age is also a point of contention. According to training documents and interviews, Facebook instructs its moderators to include so-called tenor phases when assessing age. In the early 1960’s, Dr. James M. Tanner, a British pediatrician, outlines the progressive stages of adolescence. But it was not made to determine anyone’s age.

In a 1998 letter to the Journal of Pediatrics, Dr. Tanner said the use of phases to measure “chronological age” when analyzing the image of child sexual abuse was “completely illegal.” Dr. Tanner died in 2010. The co-author of the letter, Dr. Arlan L. Rosenblum, now a retired pediatric endocrinologist, said in an interview that a 13- or 14-year-old child could be “fully developed” under the tenor stage. He also described Meta’s approach as a “complete abuse” of scale.

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