Best Methods for Reporting Illegal Content Online
Among the internet’s many benefits, the consistent creation of user-generated content has brought a surprising amount of risk to previously unsuspecting corners of the web. Illegal content is posted to the internet with surprising (and alarming) frequency, begging the question: What exactly should an individual do when they come across content they are certain is illegal?
In this article, we’ll touch on the safest and most effective methods to responsibly and efficiently report illegal content you’ve found online.
Why you should report illegal content
Accidentally scrolling through illegal content can be shocking, harmful, and disturbing. Although it is troubling to interact any further with the content you’ve suddenly found yourself consuming, the most responsible step you can take is to report it. Crimes depicted in the content could be ongoing, and drawing content analysts’ attention could help speed up law enforcement’s investigation and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice. Reporting the content could also prevent any further abuse or other crimes from happening to the victims involved.
Can you get in trouble for reporting illegal content?
Here’s the short answer: No. Depending on the laws and regulations in your country, reporting illegal content will not land you in jail. However, the way in which you have found this content could be a reason for getting in trouble with the law. For instance, if you purposefully accessed the illegal content with full intention to consume it, this could potentially lead to some legal issues, though this is subject to your country’s regulations.
What is considered illegal content?
Research what your country considers illegal content. If you find that what you’ve found is not illegal content as far as your country is concerned, though you still feel that the content should be moderated, check the community guidelines for the platform hosting the content. This will indicate whether the content is allowed or prohibited on the site, and you can alert the platform by completing its specific reporting requirements.
Method 1: Contact law enforcement
Filing a report with law enforcement is the most direct approach to addressing the illegal content you’ve found online. One benefit to alerting law enforcement about the content is that they have the authority to fully investigate and prosecute the individuals responsible for creating the illegal content. However, this method can be more time-consuming and may require more details and evidence of the content.
Rules for safely gathering information about illegal content and its site
Do not download, save, or screenshot any of the illegal content you intend to report. More often than not, providing a link to where the content exists on the website is enough for law enforcement to take hold of the situation. Copy the URL of the webpage so you can paste it into your online report to law enforcement. If you can, get further information on the website’s owner, such as their location, and include it in your report.
Find country-specific law agency websites to report
The next step is to find where the applicable law enforcement agency takes reports online.
Europol provides a comprehensive list of reporting websites for each country. If you’re in the United States, you can report directly to the FBI or the federally-suggested National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline (NCMEC) for content such as child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
Once you’re in the reporting process, you may be asked to describe what you saw and how you found it, including a link to the specific webpage where you found the material.
Are you looking at an immediate threat? Here’s how to contact local authorities
If the illegal content poses an immediate threat to you or someone you know, contact your local law enforcement for their help. This should help circumvent any harm that may occur, such as in cases of threats and harassment. Keep in mind it may be considered inappropriate to report illegal content via an emergency number, even if its threat is immediate. Consider calling your local law enforcement’s non-emergency phone number or going to a physical police station to make your report.
Method 2: Contact the online platform
This method is less direct than contacting law enforcement, though when the platform receives your report of illegal content, they should pass the information on to the proper authorities.
Identify the company hosting the content
Finding the hosting platform should be easy to find. Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram pages are quite obvious, and have fairly straight-forward methods of reporting illegal content.
Others may be harder to find. For example, a hosting company that supports blog-posting sites, such as Tumblr, may seem independent but are actually hosted by WordPress. What makes these instances potentially troublesome for reporting is that the blog owner may use a website theme or URL that hides the host site’s name. Here’s a tip to get around this: Look toward the bottom of the page for a company logo or copyright information, then you’ll know who to reach out to.
Find where the platform takes reports
Most platforms hosting user-generated content will have a reporting system for illegal or guideline-violating content. Check the platform’s homepage for indicators such as “help,” “contact us,” or “support,” which should point you to a place to report.
Describe what you know about the content
Fill out the platform’s report form. Each platform will likely have its own system and reporting requirements. Some platforms may simply ask for a link to the content with no need for any further information from you, while others might be a tad bit more comprehensive. If you’ve already contacted law enforcement about the content, let the platform know this.
Method 3: Report content to a hotline
Find the right hotline
This might be your ideal reporting method if you’ve come across content that can be reported to a hotline that specializes in combating that specific type of illegal material. For example, if you find child sexual abuse material (CSAM) or other forms of child exploitation content online, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has processes in place to promptly notify law enforcement and log the content to their database to help ensure further instances/reposts of this content are taken down more efficiently in the future.
The International Hotline Operators of Europe (INHOPE) is a worldwide network of 52 hotlines that work to respond to illegal content found on the web. INHOPE’s hotline directory will help you find the hotline applicable to the illegal content you’ve found and the country you live in.
More hotlines and resources:
Child Advocacy Centers: Provides child abuse response services, tools, and education.
Safe Horizon: A nonprofit offering services for survivors of sexual trauma.
Revenge Porn Helpline: Dedicated to aiding adults 18+ who are experiencing image-based abuse.
The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI): A 24-hour crisis hotline, offers attorney referrals and help in removing NCII from large platforms.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act: Can help educate you on the process of taking down images and aid you in doing so.
Boys Town National Hotline: An organization dedicated to promoting the safety of children and teens.
Gather the information
Similar to reporting via the methods listed above, you’ll need to describe the content you’ve seen and provide a link if possible. Again, never take screenshots or duplicate the illegal content in any way, as this increases the risk of this content being recycled across the web.
Fill out the forms on the hotline website
Every hotline is different and will provide you with their respective forms to give the analysts as much information as possible. Hotlines spend thousands of hours investigating content, and providing an ample amount of information will help hotline staff swiftly address the victims and perpetrators involved.