U.S., British and South Korean law enforcement officials said they had taken down a massive child pornography website on the dark web that contained more than 250,000 unique videos showing sex acts involving the abuse of children.
The global law enforcement operation led to the arrest of a 23-year-old South Korean man accused of running the English-language website, called “Welcome To Video.” Law enforcers also rounded up more than 330 accused users of the site in dozens of countries, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Spain and Saudi Arabia.
“The scale of this crime is eye-popping and sickening,” said John Fort, chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, NBC News reported.
Welcome To Video was described by the U.S. Justice Department as the world’s “largest child sexual exploitation” marketplace by volume of content. The site, which operated from June 2015 to March 2018, had a message on its landing page explicitly warning users to “not upload adult porn.”
Investigators found almost eight terabytes of footage showing the sexual abuse of children on the site, including videos depicting infants being raped. Almost half of the videos contained “new images that have not been previously known to exist,” the Justice Department said.
Users of the site could buy “points” with the digital currency Bitcoin, which they could use to download videos or purchase all-you-can watch “VIP” accounts, Reuters reported. Users could also earn points by uploading new videos to the site.
The site processed 7,300 Bitcoin transactions worth at least $370,000, officials said.
“Darknet sites that profit from the sexual exploitation of children are among the most vile and reprehensible forms of criminal behavior,” Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general for Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Department of Justice remains firmly committed to working closely with our partners in South Korea and around the world to rescue child victims and bring to justice the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.”
According to the Justice Department, U.S., British and South Korean agents arrested Jong Woo Son, a South Korean citizen, in his home country in March 2018 and seized the server he’d used to operate the video marketplace.
Son is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence on charges related to child pornography, Reuters reported. He was also indicted on federal child pornography charges in Washington in August. That indictment was unsealed on Wednesday.
It remains unclear whether there are plans to extradite Son to face the charges in the United States. Jessie Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said this week that she could not comment on “what may be happening with respect to extradition,” NBC reported.
The Justice Department listed at least 34 suspected users of Welcome To Video who were arrested in the United States. These include a 45-year-old D.C. man named Nicholas Stengel who was accused of downloading more than 450,000 hours of videos showing child sexual abuse; and Richard Gratkowski, a 40-year-old former Homeland Security Investigations agent, who was sentenced earlier this year to 70 months in prison on child pornography charges.
The department said the global operation had also led to the rescue of at least 23 children living in the U.S., Spain and the U.K. who were being “actively abused by the users of the site.”
Officials said the successful enforcement operation should serve as a warning to child sex offenders that they cannot escape justice ― not even on the dark web.
“Dark web child sex offenders – some of whom are the very worst offenders – cannot hide from law enforcement,” Nikki Holland, director of the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, said in a statement. ”They’re not as cloaked as they think they are, they’re not as safe as they think they are.”