Bipartisan Bill Targets Online Spread of Child Sex Abuse Material

Legislation was introduced on Tuesday that would hold tech companies more responsible for an explosion in online child sexual abuse material and give law enforcement agencies more opportunity to gather evidence of crimes.

The bill, proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate, would require companies to retain information about illegal photos and videos found on their platforms for a longer period of time. Its sponsors said the bill was in response to a New York Times investigation, part of a continuing series, revealing that cases often went cold after businesses deleted the data.

Under the current law, tech companies are required to report the imagery to a federally designated clearinghouse and retain related information for 90 days. The bill would double that period and let companies hold on to the material even longer, provided it’s for the purpose of combating further harm. Explicit photos and videos of minors, often referred to as “child pornography,” are illegal to possess and must be reported to the authorities immediately.

Representative Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican who sponsored the bill, said it aimed to give chronically under-resourced investigators more time to gather evidence.

“The problem is that there’s just too much in the system,” he said. “There’s too big of a backlog for everybody to process and effectively prosecute and go after the criminals.”

The bill was simultaneously introduced in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat.

The Times reported that over 45 million images and videos were flagged by tech companies last year, more than double than in the previous year, exposing a system at a breaking point under the stress of so many reports. Interviews and a review of documents showed that the federal government had not fulfilled significant aspects of legislation passed over a decade ago that called, in part, for increased study of the problem and significant funding to fight it.

Many of the images portray horrific instances of abuse, including rape and torture of infants and toddlers. The material can stay online for years afterward, continuing to cause victims psychological harm and, in some cases, fear for their safety as online offenders stalk them in real life.

Because these cases sometimes cross state lines, reports can bounce between multiple law enforcement agencies before reaching the right jurisdiction. Technology companies can also be slow to respond to requests for information. When this process takes longer than the current 90-day retention period, investigators may be left with few clues to follow.

In one example from Polk County, Wis., an image of a child being violently sexually abused was discovered on a popular social networking site. The investigation stalled for over a year and the investigator retired before the company responded to repeated requests for information.

The new bill is part of a larger effort in Congress to tackle the problem of abuse, prompted by The Times’s series. Lawmakers in both houses called for increased funding this fall, and a bipartisan group of senators sent questions last month to 36 online companies, asking them to describe in detail how they were combating child exploitation.

“These children cannot defend themselves,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “These are enormous platforms. I believe inherently they have responsibility that sometimes they shirk.”