Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Internet Child Pornography

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

As noted, Internet child pornography presents some unique challenges for law enforcement agencies. However, despite the difficulties involved in controlling the problem, local police have an important role to play. To maximize their contribution, local police departments need to:

  • Acquire technical knowledge and expertise in Internet pornography. If your department does not have a specialized Internet crime unit, then find out where you can obtain assistance or training. Appendix B lists online resources that can provide information on national and international initiatives, tips and leads, technical assistance, and staff training.
  • Establish links with other agencies and jurisdictions. It is important that local police departments share information and coordinate their activities with other jurisdictions. Appendix B also lists agencies that have specific programs or sections designed to provide a coordinated response to Internet child pornography.
  • Establish links with ISPs. ISPs can be crucial partners for police. As has been noted, there is often a lack of specific legislation setting out ISPs’ obligations. This makes it especially important for police to establish good working relations with ISPs to elicit their cooperation in the fight against Internet child pornography.
  • Prioritize their efforts. Because of the volume of Internet child pornography crime, police forces need to prioritize their efforts and concentrate on the most serious offenders, particularly those actually involved in abusing children and producing pornographic images.[60]For example, one strategy may be to cross reference lists of Internet child pornography users with sex offender registries to increase the chance of targeting hands-on offenders (see Appendix B). It has been noted that success in combating child pornography is too often judged in terms of the number of images recovered, rather than by the more significant criterion of whether the crimes the images portray have been prevented.[61]

Specific Responses to Reduce Internet Child Pornography

It is generally acknowledged that it is impossible to totally eliminate child pornography from the Internet. However, it is possible to reduce the volume of child pornography on the Internet, to make it more difficult or risky to access, and to identify and arrest the more serious perpetrators. Since 1996, ISPs have removed some 20,000 pornographic images of children from the web.[62] Around 1,000 people are arrested annually in the United States for Internet child pornography offenses.[63] The following strategies have been used or suggested to reduce the problem of child pornography on the Internet.

Computer Industry Self Regulation

ISPs have a central role to play in combating Internet child pornography. The more responsibility ISPs take in tackling the availability of child pornography images on the Internet, the more resources police can devote to addressing the production side of the problem. However, there are two competing commercial forces acting on ISPs with respect to self regulation. On the one hand, if an ISP restricts access to child pornography on its server, it may lose out financially to other ISPs who do not. Therefore, it will always be possible for offenders to find ISPs who will store or provide access to child pornography sites. On the other hand, ISPs also have their commercial reputation to protect, and it is often in their best interests to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Most major ISPs have shown a commitment to tackling the problem of child pornography. By establishing working relationships with ISPs, and publicizing those ISPs who take self regulation seriously, police may be able to encourage greater levels of self regulation. Current self-regulatory strategies include:

  1. A number of ISP associations have drafted formal codes of practice that explicitly bind members to not knowingly accept illegal content on their sites, and to removing such sites when they become aware of their existence. Service agreement contracts with clients will often set out expected standards that apply to site content. Large ISPs may have active cyber patrols that search for illegal sites.[64]
  2. Establishing complaint sites/hotlines. Some ISP associations have set up Internet sites or hotlines that allow users to report illegal practices.[65] These associations either deal directly with the complaint (e.g., by contacting the webmaster, the relevant ISP, or the police) or refer the complainant to the appropriate authorities.
  3. ISPs can apply filters to the browsers and search engines their customers use to locate websites. There are numerous filtering methods. For example, filters can effectively treat certain key words as if they do not exist, so that using these words in a search will be fruitless.[66] Software that can identify pornographic images is also being developed.[67]

Legislative Regulation

Not everyone is satisfied with the current reliance on self regulation, and there have been calls for increased legislation to compel the computer industry to play a greater role in controlling Internet child pornography. Police may be an important force in lobbying for tighter restrictions. Among the proposals for tighter regulation are:

  1. Making ISPs legally responsible for site content. ISPs’ legal responsibilities to report child pornography vary among jurisdictions. In the United States, ISPs are legally required to report known illegal activity on their sites, but they are not required to actively search for such sites.[68] It has been argued that ISPs’ legal responsibilities should be strengthened to require a more proactive role in blocking illegal sites.[69]
  2. Police may apply for a court order to seize ISP accounts.[70] However, to assist in the prosecution of offenders, ISPs need to maintain good records of IP logging, caller ID, web hostings, and so forth.[71]
  3. Requiring user verification. ISPs often exercise little control over verifying the identities of people who open Internet accounts. Accounts may be opened using false names and addresses, making it difficult to trace individuals who engage in illegal Internet activity. In addition, without verifying users’ ages, there is no way of knowing if children are operating Internet accounts without adult supervision. This problem of Internet anonymity is likely to increase as the potential to access the Internet via mobile phones becomes more common. It has been argued that both ISPs and mobile phone networks need to strengthen procedures for user verification.[72]
  4. Remailers are servers that forward emails after stripping them of sender identification. It has been argued that much tighter regulation of remailers is necessary. Some have advocated making remailer administrators legally responsible for knowingly forwarding illegal material, while others have called for a complete ban on remailers.[73]
  5. Encryption of pornographic images is shaping to be the biggest technological problem facing law enforcement agencies. Key escrowed encryption would require anyone selling encryption software to supply a trusted third party with a key to the code.[74] This has been strongly resisted by the computer industry. In the meantime, work continues on developing code-breaking software.

Strategies for Related Industries

There are a number of other promising strategies involving other industries with a stake in the Internet. Again, although police may have no direct role in implementing these strategies, they may be able to use their influence to encourage industries to act. Strategies include:

  1. Although there has been considerable focus on the role of ISPs in enabling the distribution of Internet child pornography, there has been less attention given to the role played by credit card companies in allowing customers to pay for that pornography. It has been argued that credit card companies have a duty to not knowingly contribute to illegal acts.[75] Some credit card companies have acknowledged the problem and vowed to act.[76]
  2. Economic pressure may be applied to service providers to encourage them to monitor illegal content. In one example of this, major brands have withdrawn advertising from P2P networks that carry child pornography.[77]

Workplace Responses

Many medium to large organizations maintain their own servers, which allow employees to access the Internet from and store data on their work computer. Work computers have been implicated in a number of child pornography cases.[78] Workplace strategies may be directed toward altering the behavior of potential offenders by reinforcing the costs associated with offending.

  1. Adopting and enforcing workplace codes of conduct. Many organizations have explicit policies regarding and consequences for the improper use of work computers. These policies need to be made clear to employees to remove any doubt about what standard of behavior is expected.
  2. The traffic through most work-based servers is less than that for commercial ISPs, making it more feasible for the system administrator to electronically monitor staff Internet use.
  3. By employing web filters, companies can place restrictions on the sites that employees can visit.[79]

Citizens' Groups

A number of nonprofit organizations have been established to raise public awareness about the issue of Internet child pornography and to act as political lobby groups. These groups include Wired Safety, Safeguarding Our Children – United Mothers (SOC-UM), and End Child Prostitution, ChildPornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).[80] Citizens’ groups will usually work in cooperation with law enforcement agencies, and local police can provide active support for their activities, which include:

  1. The main activity of these groups is to raise public awareness and provide tips for parents and teachers through their websites, publications, and online classes.
  2. Searching the Internet. Many of these groups have their own teams of volunteers who search the Internet, or hotlines where people can report Internet child pornography. Information gathered about child pornography is then passed on to law enforcement agencies. Volunteers should be careful not to inadvertently download child pornography and thus commit a crime.

Parental Strategies

One of the concerns about Internet child pornography is that children may inadvertently access material, or may have material sent to them either as part of a grooming process or by cyber-stalkers. A number of products are available to assist parents in regulating Internet content for their children.[81]Police can play an educative role in informing parents of these effective strategies by:

  1. Encouraging parents to use filtering software. Commercially available software allows parents to restrict or monitor their children’s Internet usage and may be available as part of free parental controls by certain ISPs. These programs may block undesirable sites or provide a record of Internet sites visited.
  2. The Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet (RSACi) rates websites in much the same way movies are rated. This is a voluntary system that allows website operators to obtain a rating, which they can then code into their site. Ratings may be used as a filter on web browsers to help parents control their children’s Internet use.
  3. Those in charge of a website (the webmaster) may provide key words (meta-tags) that broadly identify their site to assist in the search process. However, a webmaster may include inappropriate key words in the meta-tag to increase visits to their site. For example, a child pornography site may be located under the key word ‘Disney’. A number of child-oriented search engines (e.g., Yahooligans!) manually inspect sites for inappropriate material.

Law Enforcement Responses

In the strategies discussed so far the police role has largely involved working in cooperation with other groups or acting as educators. A number of strategies are the primary responsibility of police. As a rule, local police will not carry out major operations. Most major operations require specialized expertise and inter-agency and inter-jurisdictional cooperation. (See Appendix C for a summary of major coordinated law enforcement operations in recent years.) However, local police will almost certainly encounter cases of Internet child pornography in the course of their daily policing activities. Law enforcement responses include:

  1. Locating child pornography sites. Police agencies may scan the Internet to locate and remove illegal child pornography sites. Many areas of the Internet are not accessible via the usual commercial search engines, and investigators need to be skilled at conducting sophisticated searches of the ‘hidden net.’ Police may issue warnings to ISPs that are carrying illegal content.
  2. Law enforcement agents may enter pedophile newsgroups, chat rooms, or P2P networks posing as pedophiles and request emailed child pornography images from others in the group.[82]Alternatively, they may enter child or teen groups posing as children and engage predatory pedophiles lurking in the group who may send pornography or suggest a meeting. A variation of the sting operation is to place ads on the Internet offering child pornography for sale and wait for replies.[83]Recently, Microsoft announced the development of the Child Exploitation Tracking System to help link information such as credit card purchases, Internet chat room messages, and conviction histories.[84]
  3. These sites purport to contain child pornography but in fact are designed to capture the IP or credit card details of visitors trying to download images. These can be considered a type of sting operation and have resulted in numerous arrests. However, their primary purpose is to create uncertainty in the minds of those seeking child pornography on the Internet, and, therefore, reduce the sense of freedom and anonymity they feel (see Operation Pin in Appendix C).
  4. Publicizing crackdowns. Many police departments have learned to use the media to good effect to publicize crackdowns on Internet child pornography.[85] Coverage of crackdowns in the mass media increases the perception among potential offenders that the Internet is an unsafe environment in which to access child pornography.
  5. Although most media attention is often given to technological aspects of controlling Internet child pornography, in fact many arrests in this area arise from traditional investigative police work. Investigations may involve information from:

    • The public: The public may contact police directly, or information may be received on one of the various child pornography hotlines.
    • Computer repairers/technicians: Some states mandate computer personnel to report illegal images.[86] There are cases where computer repairers have found child pornography images on an offender’s hard drive and notified police.[87] Police may establish relationships with local computer repairers/ technicians to encourage reporting.
    • Victims: A point of vulnerability for producers of child pornography is the child who appears in the pornographic image. If the child informs others of his/her victimization, then the offender’s activities may be exposed.[88]
    • Known traders: The arrest of one offender can lead to the arrest of other offenders with whom he has had dealings, producing a cascading effect. In some cases the arrested offender’s computer and Internet logs may provide evidence of associates. (See Operation Cathedral in Appendix C.)
    • Unrelated investigations: There is increasing evidence that many sex offenders are criminally versatile and may commit a variety of other offenses.[89] Police may find evidence of Internet child pornography while investigating unrelated crimes such as drug offenses.

Responses with Limited Effectiveness

  1. There are a few citizens’ groups (e.g., Ethical Hackers Against Pedophilia) that engage in direct vigilantism by hacking into and disabling suspected offenders’ computers, posting anti-pedophile messages on pedophile bulletin boards, and swamping pedophile newsgroups with the aim of closing them down.[90] These activities are often illegal and are not endorsed by most citizens’ groups or by law enforcement agencies