German child porn network ′Elysium′ founders sentenced to lengthy jail terms | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.03.2019
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German child porn network 'Elysium' founders sentenced to lengthy jail terms

Four men have been convicted of running a German platform where more than 111,000 users traded in child pornography. But experts are divided on how to tackle child abuse on the so-called darknet.

Not quite two years after the "Elysium" platform was shut down, its founders — four men from the German states of Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg — were convicted on Thursday. The regional court in Limburg ruled that they had constructed, operated and used one of the largest sites of child pornography worldwide. One of the men, a 63-year-old man, was also found guilty of sexually abusing two young children.

The court handed down sentences ranging from just under four years to nearly 10 years in prison. The prosecution had called for jail sentences of up to nine years. The defense had pleaded for dismissal of some charges and for milder sentences on other charges. All four had pleaded guilty prior to the verdict.

111,000 users worldwide

The case made global headlines not least because of the sheer size of the network: When officials shut down its website in June 2017, they counted more than 111,000 user accounts. The case is one of the largest child pornography busts ever. The platform was controlled from Germany and supplied pedophiles around the world with photographs and videos of child abuse of a severe nature.

Darknet symbolic image (Imago/photothek/F. Gaetner)

The darknet: not one entity, but unlimited untraceable connections between individuals

The founders did not personally know each other before the court case. This was made possible by the special character of the darknet, the part of the internet that allows for anonymous communication thanks to special browsers such as "Tor." There is not one single darknet; there are many smaller and larger darknets. Two users, using various cryptographic tools, can establish a secure connection and exchange data without anyone else being able to follow their exchange. For illegal dealers in child pornography it is especially attractive that this private network can be extended to additional users and each additional user remains isolated from the classic internet.

Read more: Darknet — The shady internet

A separate category for every perversion

Joachim P., 58, is regarded as the architect of the child pornography network, which was named after the "island of the blessed" from Greek mythology. He is reputed to have set up the platform to replace an Australian site that had been shut down in 2016. The "Elysium" server is alleged to have been situated in the automotive workshop of one of the other accused. The platform offered a separate category for every perversion: infants and toddlers, girls or boys, a fetish section offering sadomasochism and sodomy.

Defendants in the Elysium child abuse trial (Imago/onemorepicture)

Four defendants, aged 40 to 62, were convicted of operating the massive child porn platform

Investigators agree that all this is just a fraction of the total of comparable crimes. Police statistics show that 13,500 children and youth in Germany were victims of sexual violence and crime last year. But there is a large factor of uncertainty. The World Health Organization estimates that a million boys and girls have been victims of such crimes in Germany — on average two children in every school class.

At the 22nd European Police Convention in Berlin in February, member of the Bundestag Günter Krings — who also serves as parliamentary undersecretary in the interior ministry — called for radical measures. He demanded a banning of the Tor browser. "I can understand that the darknet can be useful in autocratic societies," the representative of the government argued. "But in a free and open democracy there is, in my opinion, no legitimate use for it."

Roland Bless, an expert on the darknet at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), disputes this: "Democracies, too, need secure channels to transmit sensitive content in a secure environment," Bless told DW. He referred to Edward Snowden, whose revelations, he said, were of central importance to all free and open democracies. "The fight against child pornography cannot succeed by prohibiting what is essential a neutral technology. Investigators need to be given extended powers," Bless underlined.

Laying a trap

That is what the conservative parties CDU and CSU, of which Krings is a member, have been demanding. They put forward a list of immediate measures in the fight against child pornography and demanded greater powers for criminal investigators. They should be allowed to distribute realistic but computer-generated pictures of child abuse via the darknet in order to collect evidence against clients and merchants of such material. Currently, such methods face legal obstacles since criminal investigators are not allowed to distribute prohibited material themselves.

The federal commissioner handling issues related to child sexual abuse, Johannes-Wilhelm Röhrig, has called for a speedy implementation of these recommendations. This, he said, is the only way to "give the fight against child abuse new momentum," he told the news network Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

Darknet researcher Meropi Tzanetakis (privat)

Darknet researcher Meropi Tzanetakis: Privacy concerns must also be considered

However, Meropi Tzanetakis, a darknet researcher at the Centre for Criminology at Essex University, warns against increasing the powers of investigators blindly. "In prosecuting child pornography, such methods seem reasonable," she told DW. "But what happens if such extensive powers are in future used to investigate petty crimes or to spy on the normal everyday life of citizens?" Competition among investigators aiming to shut down as many platforms as possible would not be useful, she says. "If you shut down one site, another will pop up immediately since the demand remains."

The social roots of the phenomenon of child pornography needed to be examined, she said. And that, she said, is much more challenging than simply relying on technical solutions.

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