Policing the unacceptable - Bringing paedophiles to justice

In Part 2 of our 'Web of Porn News Special', ZDNet reports on the efforts of parents, police and governments to stop paedophiles.

Paedophiles hiding their preferences for child sex are being given an outlet by the Internet according to the police.

Chief Superintendent Martin Jauch, head of the Metropolitan Police's Clubs and Vice Unit and PC Paul Griffiths from the Obscene Publications Unit in Manchester agree the Internet has spawned a new breed of paedophile. The anonymity offered by the Internet has meant paedophiles online can exploit children in relative safety often masquerading as other children in the increasingly popular online chat rooms.

"People would not dream of going into a shop and asking for child pornography," says Jauch, "but they will go online and explore the Internet looking for images of children." More worrying is Griffiths' claim that people who may initially search for child pornography out of curiosity often become hooked. "When we arrest people so many say they were merely looking. I know that is what they would say but we hear it so often, it has a ring of truth about it."

Detective Seargent Steve Quick of the Paedophilia Unit at Scotland Yard believes the cyber paedophile is very different from the old cliché of a dirty old man hanging around a school yard in a grubby macintosh. "The new stereotype," says Quick, "is of a man sitting at a computer without a dirty mac on. The bag of sweets has been replaced by computer games he can download to you."

Detective Inspector David Marshall who also works in the Met's Paedophilia Unit believes the fight against paedophiles could be helped if powers were granted to arrest people downloading illegal images of children. Currently, possession of pictures of children being abused is a summary offence only, meaning the police have no power of arrest. A change in the law would make it easier for police to interview suspects and search premises. As far as the Paedophilia Unit is concerned every possessor of child pornography is a potential paedophile and may be able to supply valuable information about the origin of the material.

"We are interested in who is being abused. The trail may be never-ending but we need to find where these images came from," says Marshall.

Marshall believes the Internet has increased the amount of child pornography available. "People may not have known where to go before, now they can access it with the click of a button," he says. It would not however be accurate to say there are more children being abused. Much of the child pornography available on the Internet are old photographs -- many from the 70s -- that have been digitised.

The police are reluctant to discuss the methods used to catch paedophiles on the Internet. "There is a fine line," says Marshall, "between education and alerting people to what you are doing." Ex-chief of the Paedophilia Unit at Scotland Yard, Jim Reynolds -- now a consultant in paedophilia -- explains, "there is always a danger of being seen as an agent provocateur. The accused could say he wouldn't have done what he did if the police had not led him on." There is also a lack of resources in UK police forces. "It is a big problem and we don't have the luxury of sitting at a computer and policing the Internet," Reynolds adds.

To that end ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) is considering setting up a unit to deal with cyber crime. John Stewardson of the National Crime Squad believes it would be a good idea as long as it was a national organisation with an international remit. "A body like the National Crime Squad could take it on but it would need additional staffing and resources," he said.

No details of when such a unit will be set up are available at the moment.

UK Law

  • The Protection of Children Act (1978) made it illegal to distribute obscene images of children.

  • The Criminal Justice Act (1988 ) made it illegal to possess obscene images of children.

  • An amendment of the Criminal Justice Act (1994) made the distribution of child pornography an arrestable offence only.

  • Individuals caught distributing obscene images of children on the Net face up to three years in jail and will automatically be put on the Sex Offenders register.

  • No one in the UK has yet been given a jail sentence for distributing child pornography on the Internet.

  • The UK relies on the self-regulation of the Internet, via ISPs and the IWF.

Difference between US and UK law

  • Resources -- while the US Congress has made $10m (£6m) available for one FBI investigation into child pornography, estimates put the total UK budget at less than £2m. In the US, Custom officers are able to seize and investigate electronic data being imported or exported. In the UK there is currently no such law. Custom officers can only intercept "tangible" property.

  • Police methods -- entrapment methods used in the US do not go down so well in the UK. The UK courts question such methods, claiming officers using such methods are acting as 'agent provocateurs'. Consequently the police avoid using them.

  • Police powers -- law enforcers both sides of the Atlantic have the right to demand information they deem may be illegal. A judge can order an ISP or company to give the authorities the right to information.

    Today sees the start of Part 2 in our Web of Porn News Special. ZDNet reports on the efforts of parents, police and governments to stop paedophiles operating on the Net. Take me to the Web of Porn Special