The number of reports of suspected child sexual abuse has grown exponentially in recent years. The high volume, up from roughly 100,000 in 2009, has overwhelmed both the national clearinghouse and law enforcement officials. A 2019 investigation by The Times found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation could only manage its case load from the clearinghouse by limiting its focus to infants and toddlers.
Ms. Davis said a policy that resulted in more reports could worsen the bottleneck. “If the system is too filled with things that are not useful,” she said, “then this creates a real burden.”
But some current and former investigators said the decision should be made by law enforcement.
“No one should decide not to report a possible crime, especially a crime against a child, because they believe that the police are too busy,” said Chuck Cohen, who led a child exploitation task force in Indiana for 14 years.
Dana Miller, the commander of a similar task force in Wisconsin, said tech companies could not know whether a report might be useful in furthering an existing investigation. “Even though everyone is overwhelmed, we’re not comfortable on our side making a blanket statement that we don’t want to see those reports,” she said.
Yiota Souras, general counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the national clearinghouse for the reports, said the center’s caseload “can’t be at play here.” She said imagery should always be reported if it might involve a child.
How Facebook makes its age determinations is also a point of contention. According to the training document and interviews, Facebook instructs its moderators to incorporate so-called Tanner stages when assessing age. Initially developed in the late 1960s by Dr. James M. Tanner, a British pediatrician, the tool outlines the progressive phases of puberty. But it was not designed to determine someone’s age.
In a 1998 letter to the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Tanner said that using the stages to measure “chronologic age” when analyzing child sexual abuse imagery was “wholly illegitimate.” Dr. Tanner died in 2010. The co-author of the letter, Dr. Arlan L. Rosenbloom, now a retired pediatric endocrinologist, said in an interview that a child at 13 or 14 could be “fully developed” under the Tanner stages. He also characterized Meta’s approach as “a total misuse” of the scale.