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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 13:57 GMT
Tackling online child pornography
Seven men - members of the so-called Wonderland Club - are awaiting sentencing for their involvement in an internet paedophilia ring. But net watchdogs say they are "optimistic" about curbing the level of child pornography online. BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward investigates what can be done to curb the web perverts.

Closer co-operation between police forces, net service companies, and web watchdogs is helping to trace, track and identify paedophiles using the net.

International links are also helping to co-ordinate action against groups or individuals in foreign countries.

But some US politicians are advocating draconian measures to tackle online criminals, in moves criticised by privacy advocates who say fundamental freedoms are being eroded.

Police raids

This week sentences are expected to be handed down on seven men arrested almost three years ago as part of Operation Cathedral - a swoop against paedophiles that spanned 12 countries.

The seven men were part of 107 people arrested by police across the globe. Those arrested were part of the "Wonderland Club", an online forum set up to swap and share indecent images of children.

Since Operation Cathedral more raids have taken place on both local and national levels against those trading child pornography on the net.

In early December 1999 20 police forces made arrests in 27 different locations as part of Operation Queensland.

The raids followed an investigation by Greater Manchester Police's obscene publications unit.

Last month police forces in 12 regions took part in Operation Janitress which resulted in the arrest of 13 paedophiles as well as the seizure of computers, videos and images.

The raids were the end result of a two-year investigation that began with the arrest of Gloucestershire man who was suspected of abusing his children that led police, via one of his contacts, to an online forum where child pornography was swapped.

Watching the web

Ruth Dixon, deputy chief executive of web watchdog Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), said she was "optimistic" about curbing online child pornography thanks to greater national and international co-operation.

Ms Dixon said: "Paedophilia on the net is not a new problem [but the net] offers a new vehicle for their content and fantasies."

She said it let paedophiles reassure each other that what they were doing was normal.

"The validation of their behaviour by each other is a very important aspect," said Ms Dixon.

She said the IWF works closely with net service providers and the police and share information when illegal content is reported or found.

The IWF is also a founder of a pan-European organisation, called Inhope, that also lets hotlines swap information about online paedophilia and track the source of images even if they came from a foreign country.

Evidence gathered by IWF is helping police forces in Estonia and South Africa have made arrests and Chilean police have been given vital leads.

Ms Dixon said: "The more people that go online the more contact the web offers to like-minded people and that includes people interested in child sex images but as well as facilitating them finding each other it also facilitates the police finding them."

She said computers seized in past raids are helping police trace networks of paedophiles, law enforcement agencies are getting better at tracking people online and the creation of a high-tech crime unit in the National Criminal Intelligence Service is helping combat the growth of paedophilia and co-ordinate action.

Online laws

Britain has passed the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill that gives police new powers to tackle online crimes.

But critics, such as the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said its wide-ranging snooping powers threaten rights to privacy.

The Council of Europe is drawing up a treaty governing the investigation of online crimes that has also been criticised. In all 23 organisations expressed doubts about the treaty with one calling it "appalling".

But some politicians in the US want to go much further.

Bob Brown, a state representative in the Michigan House of Representatives, is proposing legislation that will force free net service providers based in the state to identify all their customers so criminals can be caught.

The move has been condemned by the Electronic Frontier Foundation - a cyber civil rights organisation based in San Francisco - which said the legislation was unconstitutional.

Ruth Dixon said attempts to police online paedophilia have to be framed within national and European laws on human rights, privacy and data protection.

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