I'm going to need something stronger than brain bleach.
August 9, 2012 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I accidentally saw child pornography on Twitter. Could I get into legal trouble for this?

When I logged on to Twitter this morning, I saw a tweet from a friend expressing outrage that Twitter had not yet suspended a particular account. His tweet didn't make clear exactly what the problem was, and he isn't usually censorship-happy, so I wondered what had upset him. Like an idiot, I clicked on the offending account, and became almost physically ill at what I saw: very graphic images of children being sexually abused. I didn't click on them, they only showed up in the "recent images" thumbnails, but that was bad enough.

I reported the account to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S. and to the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK. (I didn't bother reporting to Twitter because plenty of other people said they had already done so, with no effect.) After at least 14 solid hours of complaints from all over the world, Twitter finally suspended the account.

Apart from the trauma of seeing the pictures (I'd hoped to go to my grave without ever having seen child porn), I am also concerned that I now have illegal images in my browser history. Could I actually get in trouble with the law for this, or would there need to be evidence that I looked at them willingly? Will the fact that I reported them exonerate me? I'm in England. Thanks.
posted by Perodicticus potto to Law & Government (13 answers total)
When you reported it, you probably should have asked them and ask. I really doubt you would be charged, but your peace of mind is worth calling back or spending the cash to ask a lawyer.
posted by Blisterlips at 11:44 AM on August 9, 2012

Clear your browser history and your cache. The evidence on your machine will be more-or-less gone. (deleted files can sometimes be recovered but as time passes the chances of that get slimmer as the file space allocated to those images is overwritten with new stuff, couldn't hurt to defrag your hard drive too). The evidence of your ip/account will still be in your ISPs logs and twitters.

I once interviewed a guy for a job who used to be a teacher, I asked why he'd stopped teaching and he told me he had been convicted of viewing child pornography - he claimed that he plead guilty to a fraction of what he was charged with and had to give up teaching to avoid jail time and a lengthy trail. He said that the images on his computer were hidden in chat rooms/forums (can't remember the specifics) that he frequented (theoretically possible, preloading images that aren't actually displayed it totally doable).

When I looked up the news reports later it seems he was charged with several thousand counts of "creating child pornography", the news reports were fairly light on the actual details but given that he wasn't in jail, I assumed that the images being copied to his hard drive (either intentionally or just as part of his browser cache) was enough to convict him for "creating" rather than just viewing. (this was in england)

Chances are you have nothing to worry about, if this was a high profile incident there will be lots of innocent people who have those images but clearing your cache and history wont do you any harm.
posted by missmagenta at 11:54 AM on August 9, 2012

I think that the authorities would have contacted you by now if they were interested in pursuing this further.
posted by twblalock at 12:13 PM on August 9, 2012

I think that the authorities would have contacted you by now if they were interested in pursuing this further.

This happened this morning! The authorities rarely move that fast for a non-violent offense. Surveillance and subpoenas and other investigation will take longer than a day.

clearing your cache and history wont do you any harm

I would ask a real UK lawyer before assuming this to be true. In some jurisdictions (not necessarily yours), clearing the cache has been cited as evidence of "knowing" possession of cp.
posted by *s at 12:38 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lawyer. Do not do anything further until you get one. Your question is incredibly jurisdiction dependent, and there's also some practical considerations to be weighed that only a local attorney will know about (for instance, are the cops more likely or less likely to do anything if you report it to them? Will clearing your cache show your willingness to be rid of material you never wanted, or instead be evidence that you were trying to hide the truth?) Only a lawyer will know these answers.
posted by Happydaz at 12:53 PM on August 9, 2012

When I logged on to Twitter this morning, I saw a tweet from a friend expressing outrage that Twitter had not yet suspended a particular account. His tweet didn't make clear exactly what the problem was

Have you verified with your friend that he actually sent that tweet? Because, if so, your friend set you up to view child pornography. His carelessness -- let's hope it's carelessness -- has left you with images you can't unsee, and some uncomfortable legal questions as well.

If the tweet didn't really come from your friend, then that's another level of forensics, and a different reason not to wipe your cache, etc.

Seriously, consult with a lawyer, because these data are evidence of a crime. It's not *your* crime, but they're still evidence. Your friend may have committed a crime! Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer.

(And, depending on how much the images are bothering you, a one-shot session with a therapist might do you some good, too. This is the sort of thing where dealing with it immediately can really help.)

On preview: those of us in the US, at least, have learned that people can be prosecuted for owning and distributing naked pictures of *themselves* if they are underage. In a culture where a thirteen year old sending a naked picture to her boyfriend is a "child pornographer", being legally paranoid about actual factual child pornography just seems like good sense.
posted by endless_forms at 1:14 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the details of your situation are:

1. Accidentally viewed child pornography

2. Immediately reported child pornography

Then I don't see how you could fall ill, since then technically anyone who ever reported child pornography could be liable.

Naturally I'm not a lawyer and other people here may have better legal advice. But it seems like you acted like a good citizen and I don't see any reason to act guiltier than necessary (emptying your cache, etc.). It seems vanishingly unlikely that you will ever hear about this incident ever again.
posted by hermitosis at 1:30 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Your question states that you are located in England. I'm an American lawyer and I don't know anything about British law, so obviously I am not qualified to give you legal advice.

However, I can tell you that in the United States in previous years, our courts have sometimes done a poor job of distinguishing between content that you purposely download from the Internet versus the "downloading" that occurs when your browser visits a new webpage for the first time. Obviously, in one case you know what you're getting, and in the other you don't. We are doing a better job of recognizing the distinction nowadays, and while not all jurisdictions are up-to-date there are now some precedents that attorneys can cite to help inform courts that are unfamiliar with the issue.

That information is of no legal consequence to you, but it might make you feel better. If Americans are doing better at recognizing this distinction, then England may be somewhere along the same path and maybe (?) even farther along. Based on what you have described, if you were my sibling and you asked me this question on a personal, not-legal-advice basis, I would tell you confidently not to worry.
posted by cribcage at 2:04 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Could you get any data showing how long you spent with the page loaded on your screen before clicking on something else or closing the browser window? That might help you substantiate that it was an accidental click, as compared to someone who, er, wanted to look at it.

That said I think you probably have nothing to worry about (based on my entirely non-legal opinion)
posted by EatMyHat at 2:33 PM on August 9, 2012

Look, you have every right to be worried, but in honesty the police have bigger fish to fry: there are significant numbers of people out there abusing children, filming it, trading those photos with others. These are the people the police devotes its energies to finding and prosecuting.

A single view of a pic on a public site? Lots of people will probably have seen it. You aren't all going to be prosecuted. Rest easy, seriously.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:22 PM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Could I actually get in trouble with the law for this, or would there need to be evidence that I looked at them willingly?

I'm not sure that the caselaw makes your potential criminal liability terribly clear. Whether you were ever actually in possession of the images seems, on a quick glance, to be subject to debate. If you are concerned to determine the extent of your potential liability, you need to speak to a solicitor specialising in the field.

However, in terms of your peace of mind, it's worth understanding that, in order to bring a prosecution, the CPS have to satisfy a twofold test. The first relates likelihood of conviction (see above), the second to public interest. It seems very unlikely (almost unthinkable), whatever your technical liability may be, that the CPS will be able to justify pursuing a prosecution against you as being in the public interest.

I wouldn't delete anything or attempt to "cover your tracks" in any way. I'd would immediately contact a criminal firm if you were to hear anything further. However, I suspect, very strongly, that you won't. I can't see any reason to take any further steps at this point.

posted by howfar at 6:33 PM on August 9, 2012

You're not the pedophile they're looking for-- you aren't exhibiting a pattern of behavior, and 1 picture isn't going the cops to other pedophiles nor some kind of central repository of child porn. With this thread alone, to say nothing of your reporting, you've created a kind of paper-trail of your outrage and disgust at what some jerkass exposed you to, and that's going to weigh in your favor even if you can't get a judge to understand twitter.

You've done what you can. No need to lawyer up unless Law Enforcement contacts you.

Want to be paranoid? Wipe the blank space on your hard drive, back it up, and give the backup to a friend.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:11 PM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: I'm sorry this happened. Something like this can heavily affect anybody with a shred of empathy. It's also a difficult subject to broach, even with friends, so make sure you have a trusted, sympathetic person to reach out to if you're finding it difficult to come to grips with for any reason.

Regardless of any image's source, all "thumbnail" images under "Recent Images" on a Twitter feed are generated at the server level by Twitter, and served from one of their domains. For example, if I were to post an image called concert-picture.jpg to my Twitter feed, Twitter would generate that separate, thumbnail-sized image at a web address like http://p.twimg.com/Az6ig8VCYAAwA_F.jpg:thumb

This means that regardless of the original source of the image, your computer did not download anything from any sort of illegal site or connect to any other server that would raise red flags to be connecting to. The only servers you were ever connected to were Twitter's.

And because of the normal "churn" of image files cached by your web browser, the thumbnails in question may already be gone from your computer entirely, and at any rate soon will be, with no input from you. But nobody would begrudge you clearing your browser cache manually, just to personally know you are rid of this.

I am not a lawyer, and I am not suggesting you don't consult one, as I can't tell you what this means from a legal standpoint. But I hope that it reassures you that you that this incident has already done you whatever harm it ever will, and that you have done your diligence in response.
posted by churl at 11:46 PM on August 9, 2012

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