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Are there really four million child porn websites?

Last week, a report by the United Nations released a jaw-dropping statistic, reported by the AP and elsewhere:

The number of Web sites containing child pornography is increasing and more images show serious abuses, a U.N. expert said Wednesday. More than 4 million Web sites worldwide show images of children being sexually exploited, said the U.N. investigator on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Najat M’jid Maalla. “There is an increase in the number of sites recorded,” she told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, citing research by the U.K.-industry group Internet Watch Foundation.

Four million seems a staggering number. The Internet Watch Foundation maintains a blacklist of child porn sites, and issued research in January, 2009 that stated the number was “fewer than 3,000.” The IWF website notes that, “The list typically contains less than 1000 live child sexual abuse URLs at any one time.” A blacklist maintained by Danish ISPs in February 2008, reported 3,863 blocked sites. And an Australian government blacklist published by the website WikiList listed 2,395 pages.

So where would these researchers get a figure like 4,000,000? I see two possibilities, either credible:

1) The four million number refers to child pornography images, not websites. In an interview with Reuters, “Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said its database now contains more than half a million images of children being sexually exploited.” Not four million, but at least in the same ballpark. A statistic of 4 million child pornography images in existence worldwide seems very credible.

2) The four million number refers to all pornography sites, not just child pornography sites. Research from 2004 and 2005 reported the total number of Internet pornography sites at 1.2 to 1.5 million, so a 4 million number is credible here as well. (Side note: counting the number of Internet pornography sites is difficult because the Internet porn industry operates by creating large numbers of free “feeder” sites that display free content in order to “feed” users to a few thousands pay sites).

In any event, we need some explanation from the U.N. here on this number that seems wildly at odds with other research.

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