The New York Times report on yesterday's Internet kid sex hearings dropped a big, round number in its first sentence: "The sexual exploitation of children on the Internet is a $20 billion industry that continues to expand in the United States and abroad, overwhelming attempts by the authorities to curb its growth, witnesses said at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday."
$20 billion? Really?
The full transcript of the session isn't online yet, so I don't know if it was really witnesses, plural, who made that claim, or just the one witness identified in this Louisville Courier-Journal article: "Online child pornography is a $20 billion annual business, said Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va."
In any case, both the Times and the L/C-J weren't listening closely. Unless Allen departed from his prepared remarks, what he actually said was that "commercial child pornography" overall "is a $20 billion industry worldwide, fueled by the Internet." Bad enough, but not quite the same thing � and what does "fueled by the Internet" mean in quantitative terms anyway?
But even with the clarification... $20 billion? Really?
Allen attributes the the figure to "a recent report by McKinsey Worldwide" � a report and organization unknown to either Google or Nexis (unless The Firm is branching out). I'm trying to track it down to see how that number was generated, because... $20 billion? Really? I can't disprove it yet, and, yes, I'm sure a lot of money goes into kiddie porn around the world, but the vibe is suspiciously similar to the common claim that America spends $10 billion on legal porn each year, a claim I've griped about before. Keep in mind that Allen was a source for the dubious Primetime Live story on American sex slaves.
Update: Apparently, the $20 billion figure has been out there for some time. It's frequently said to be the amount spent just on the Internet, and it's sometimes inflated to "$20-$30 billion." I have yet to find a verifiable attribution.
Update: A lead, perhaps. This summary of a 2004 report that I can't yet find says the report "refers to studies putting the annual market in child pornography on the Internet at almost 20 billion dollars, adding that paedophile images make up almost a quarter of the images downloaded from the Internet."
A quarter? Really?
Update: No, not really. Still haven't found the report, but here's a direct quote regarding that last figure: "Surveys in 2003 suggest that child pornography accounts for 24 percent of image searches in peer-to-peer applications." Note: P2P is not the entire Internet. "Image searches" isn't even close to the same thing as "images downloaded." It's entirely possible that people search more frequently for something that is harder to find. After all, you can find common files with one try, but you'd have to repeat your search over and over again for files that fewer people are sharing.
Update: Finally got a call back from NCMEC. The flack didn't have the actual report on hand, but she did tell me that it was put together by McKinsey Worldwide ("an Asian company") at the behest of an NCMEC board member. And the figures ($20B now rising to $30-$35B by 2009 -- think about that for a second) in it are based on information from the FBI and the Council of Europe. The CoE report is the 2004 one I referenced above, and as I noted they got the figure from someone else, so NCMEC is using third-hand information and attributing it to the second-hand source. Why? The flack had no idea. Who the CoE source is I don't know since the CoE web site only has a summary; the link to the actual report is dead. I did a quick search of the FBI site with no luck, but I'll try again. Oh by the way, the FBI lists NCMEC as a "partner"; According to Wikipedia (I know, I know) NCMEC gets $30 million a year from the Justice Dept. This is all looking a little, pardon the expression, incestuous.
Update: The plot thickens. After checking with the cybercrime department, FBI spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan refuses to comment on these figures. "That's NCMEC's number. I don't know where that number came from or how it was generated." I asked if that means that the number did not come from the FBI. Her very careful response: "I'm not saying that. I don't know if it came from the FBI. You'll have to talk to them." And I will. Again.
Update: The Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik takes up the quest with similar lack of results. He does, however, get this (too-little too-late) promise from NCMEC: "If it is determined that this ends up not being a reliable statistic, NCMEC will stop citing McKinsey as the source and will also stop citing a specific number."
Update: The nail in to coffin from Bialik:
In a 2004 report, the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg, France-based human-rights watchdog, attributed the number to Unicef. But Allison Hickling, a spokeswoman for the United Nations child agency, told me in an email, "The number is not attributable to Unicef -- we do not collect data on this issue."
I told Alexander Seger, who worked on the Council of Europe reports, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Unicef, both cited in Council reports, said they weren't the source for the $20 billion figure. He said the Council won't use the number in the future, and added in an email, "I think we have what I would call a case of information laundering: You state a figure on something, somebody else quotes it, and then you and others [quote] it back, and thus it becomes clean and true. ... Perhaps this discussion will help instill more rigor in the future."