Discussion Paper

No. 2017-15 | March 28, 2017
Child abuse materials as digital goods: why we should fear new commercial forms
(Submitted as Policy Paper)


Psycho-sociological and legal aspects of online child sexual abuse such as criminalization, offender profiling, and rehabilitation have been thoroughly studied in the literature. The economics of the issue may appear relatively insignificant at first sight, considering the devastating effects on victims. However, understanding the child abuse materials’ economic value better is crucial for developing more effective crime prevention strategies particularly for emerging threats, since the disruption of an illicit market is closely related to the perceived value of such materials. Even for relatively traditional methods like membership-only commercial websites, law enforcement responses do not appear to recognize the economic facts of child abuse materials as digital goods. Similar to the legal actions taken against conventional forms of crime, law enforcement agencies preferred to take down the markets of such materials. Thus, they diminished the demand and supply of child abuse materials by shutting down online platforms and apprehending the abusers. However, in line with technological advances, new ways of offending have emerged that make these measures almost useless. Specific characteristics and dangers of these emerging threats from an economic perspective seem underestimated or completely ignored. This paper aims to analyze the economic aspect of online child abuse materials as a type of digital goods, and it discusses how new forms of commercial sexual exploitation such as crowdfunding and webcam child prostitution challenge the widely accepted policies on the fight against online child sexual abuse.

JEL Classification:

A10, K42


  • Downloads: 268


Cite As

Kemal Veli Acar (2017). Child abuse materials as digital goods: why we should fear new commercial forms. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2017-15, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2017-15

Comments and Questions

Anonymous - Referee report
May 02, 2017 - 12:45

This paper aims to make use of the economic theories and concepts that revolve around the concept of public and digital goods to study the economic nature of of Child Abuse Material shared online, with the aim to help law enforcement agencies impede sharing of such material online. While this ...[more]

... is clearly commendable there are unfortunately significant issues in this work:

• One of the key assumption seems to be that producers of CAM behave like traditional producers of digital goods. While not being an expert in the field, it seems to me, from what I have read and I have heard on the topic, that this is not incorrect, since producers of CAM are likely to be (first and foremost?) consumers themselves. If this is correct, their incentive structure is likely to be completely different from the one of traditional producers. Consequently, the author should have investigated the literature related to User Generated Content, User Innovation and prosumers. The author actually mentions on p. 6 that the consumers of CAM form a tight community and that sharing (as opposed to commercialisation) CAM is seen as the norm.
• The author makes frequent comparisons between CAM and the Silk Road, but the difference is that while the former is intangible (and only gets to tangible media when need arises), what is traded on the latter generally consists in tangible goods (e.g., weapons, drugs, counterfeit items). Because of that, it is indeed unlikely that the same trade devices would emerge for CAM as for other non-digital goods.
• WCP corresponds to the online delivery of live acts requested by a customer. As such, just like regular prostitution, it is a service, not a good. This makes comparison between CAM and WCP difficult as these are not the same economic object. Indeed, as service is, unlike a digital good, rival and excludable, but that is the case for (most) services. No surprise here.
• In regard to “crowdfunding the abuse”, it is a known fact in the literature that even pure public goods (e.g. street light, lighthouse) remain excludable before they have been “produced”. Likewise, the first unit of a digital good remains excludable. The relevance of this commercialisation method is, thus, not surprising. However, for it to work, there should not be too much competition (which there is in this case, considering the large amount of free material available on TOR, as mentioned by the author) and there should be some form of trust existing between the auctioneer and the clients, which apparently (according to the author) was not the case).
• The implications for research and practice are rather surprising. While, reading the paper, it is fairly obvious that the “market” for CAM consists mainly in a community of consumers that share freely content that has been mainly “user-generated”, the author nonetheless suggests that Law Enforcement Authorities should target first commercial sources, whereas they (from the author’s own account) appear to have been so far fairly anecdotal and did not achieve any significant commercial success.
• This is probably one of the main shortcomings of this work is that it appears to assume that commercial outlets are at the origin of CAM. Yet, one of the key impacts of digitisation is that it enables everyone to create, duplicate and distribute content. One just has to look at the sheer amount of User Generated Content available online, in any domain (including, by the way, the pornographic industry, which has been overflowed by “amateur” content). Considering the risk entailed by running a (necessarily visible) commercial CAM production operation, one would expect such “amateur” user-generated content to be sadly the main source of CAM nowadays. If that is not the case (i.e. most content comes from a few “professional” sources), this should be made clearer in the article.
• Overall, while the main objective of this paper is to use economic concepts revolving around the nature of digital goods, it actually fails to fully encompass the impact of digitisation. Some aspects (e.g. difference between goods and services) appear not clearly understood. As a result, the conclusion drawn from this analysis (i.e. target commercial production outlet first) appears at odds with what the conventional wisdom (and literature) that has emerged following the explosion of user-generated content.
• As a result, this paper fails to make a significant contribution, in particular because the analysis developed (and the conclusions that ensue) is, at least partially, incorrect.

kemal veli açar - reply
June 09, 2017 - 21:28

Thank you for your detailed review and sorry for the late reply. I have been in Hebron (Palestine) for a special international mission entitled TIPH since the first of May. Therefore, I neglected to respond in a timely manager. Please accept my apologies.

- Producers of CAM generally ...[more]

... don't behave like the traditional producers of digital goods. However, in some cases, abusers have tried to gain money from the CAM they had possessed or created. For the non-commercial producers, as you have mentioned, user generated content and other related concepts are more relevant. Anecdotal evidence shows that non-commercial abusers form the majority and also usually possess and share outdated images. For the new CAMs, at the moment, non-commercial abusers create the most of the supply. However, even if it's in a minuscule scale, commercial trade of CAM is different, more dangerous and more closely associated with offline crimes such as child trafficking and child prostitution. A commercial abuser has to produce and sell new images to make good money. And, that reality might easily lead to the abuse of new children or intensify ongoing abuse. The aim of the article is to draw attention to the new forms of commercial child abuse which can change the current status quo in a bad way. In conclusion, regardless of the scale, any type of commercial online child sexual exploitation should be a concern of scholars and policy makers since it involves the victimization of "living" children. For this reason, I claimed that LEAs should target the commercial abusers at every time.

- Silk Road sold tangible goods but its resilient and more flexible structure might be copied by abusers to trade CAMs. That's the main reason why I made the comparisons. As you have mentioned, it would probably fail. Still, it amazes me why the abusers haven't tried such an option.

- Unlike traditional child prostitution, sessions of WCP can be recorded and turned into a digital good. Therefore, I thought that WCP is more digital good than a service. But, you are right. Even if it can be turned into a digital good by third party applications, WCP is basically a service.