BERLIN — German prosecutors have broken up an online platform for sharing images and videos showing the sexual abuse of children, mostly boys, that had an international following of more than 400,000 members, they said on Monday.
The site, named “Boystown,” had been around since at least June 2019 and included forums where members from around the globe exchanged images and videos showing children, including toddlers, being sexually abused. In addition to the forums, the site had chat rooms where members could connect with one another in various languages.
German federal prosecutors described it as “one of the largest child pornography sites operating on the dark net” in a statement they released on Monday announcing the arrest in mid-April of three German men who managed the site and a fourth who had posted thousands of images to it.
“This investigative success has a clear message: Those who prey on the weakest are not safe anywhere,” Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said on Monday. “We are holding perpetrators accountable and doing what is humanly possible to protect children from such repugnant crimes.”
Over the past decade, Germany has started a government campaign that includes a special unit to investigate crimes online in an effort to combat the sexual abuse of children. While the endeavor has uncovered several sophisticated networks, tens of thousands of new cases of abuse are reported to the authorities each year. Parliament passed a law that would toughen sentences against those convicted of sexual exploitation or abuse of children last week.
The accused administrators of the “Boystown” site, aged 40 and 49, were arrested after raids in their homes in Paderborn and Munich, the prosecutors said. A third man accused of being an administrator, 58, was living in the Concepción region of Paraguay, where he has been detained awaiting extradition.
Prosecutors said the men hosted the site on the dark net, which is accessible only by certain software and is used by criminals to communicate without being detected. In addition to running the servers and providing support to members, those running the platform would teach users how to surf the site while minimizing the risk of being detected or attracting suspicion.
A fourth man, 64, was arrested in Hamburg on suspicion of uploading more than 3,500 images and videos of abuse to the site, as one of its most active members. He faces charges of belonging to the site and sharing material depicting child sexual abuse.
A German police task force spent months investigating the platform, its administrators and users in cooperation with Europol, the European Union’s police agency, and law enforcement authorities from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, the statement said.
None of the suspects were identified by name, in keeping with German privacy laws.
Last month, the German Parliament passed a law to expand the authorities’ abilities to pursue those suspected of harming children and increase the prison terms for anyone convicted of sexually abusing minors to a maximum of 15 years. Those convicted of spreading child exploitation and abuse would face up to 10 years in prison — double the previous maximum sentence.
Lawmakers pointed to criminal statistics that showed a 65 percent increase in the number of crimes involving child sexual exploitation or abuse from 2018 to 2019, as evidence that Germany needs to toughen its laws to protect children. Approval before the upper house is pending.
Last week, a former national soccer team star, Christoph Metzelder, was handed a 10-month suspended sentence after he was convicted of 26 counts of possession and sharing photos of girls younger than 10 being severely sexually abused. Mr. Metzelder confessed to some of the charges and apologized to the victims, which the judge said she had taken into consideration in lessening his punishment.
But many Germans, including some of Mr. Metzelder’s former teammates, protested that the punishment was too lenient.
“I don’t see how that is supposed to act as a deterrent,” Lukas Podolski, who was a member of the 2014 team that won the soccer World Cup for Germany, told the Bild newspaper. “Whoever commits sins against children must be punished with the full weight of the law.”