Some child sex offenders should be encouraged to seek treatment rather than be sent to prison, the police's child protection chief says.
Jail should be reserved for more serious offenders, police say
Jim Gamble, of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), said some offenders who viewed child porn could be given a police caution.
He believes treatment in the community is a practical way of dealing with the huge scale of the problem.
The CEOP was launched in April 2006 to tackle child sex abuse in the UK.
Since then the centre has received almost 2,000 reports from the police, members of the public, children and other agencies about child exploitation.
Some children's charities criticised Mr Gamble but he pointed out that cautions were already used to manage people who had viewed internet porn.
That included 700 people who were convicted earlier this year as part of an internet child pornography inquiry, Operation Ore.
"Not everyone does go to prison at the minute. Let's make sure the right people go to prison and let's manage the rest in a way that protects our children best," he told BBC News.
Earlier Mr Gamble said the information flow on paedophilia was increasing massively.
He suggested that to deal with the scale of the problem, some offenders should receive a police caution and then be managed within the community.
"We shouldn't be sending everyone that ever commits an offence - particularly of the viewing kind - to prison.
"There are people who have been dealt with by police caution who can be dealt with successfully in a way that allows them to maintain their lives and their families."
Mr Gamble said he was not referring to paedophiles who committed violent offences like the rape of a child, but he insisted that some offenders "at the beginning of the spread of abuse may benefit from a police caution and can be managed".
He said: "We've got to create an active and real deterrent that diverts them (predators) from committing this offence before they do, and that's something that we're really focused on.
"If you're an offender, our message to you today has developed to a stage whereby we're saying 'for goodness' sake, go and get help before you get caught'."
Ray Wyre, director of RWA, an independent child protection group that aims to help to rehabilitate sex offenders, said that not everyone who downloaded child pornography was a paedophile.
"They see a sentence under pictures that says 'three virgins', or something like that, and they get curious as to what that is, and they download it. It's that easy to have illegal images on your computer."
He said people who downloaded child porn were already being given cautions, which led to social services only allowing the offender to have supervised contact with their own children.
'Just as guilty'
But Michele Elliot, director of Kidscape, said people who view child pornography should not escape jail.
"They are just as guilty as the person taking the photos. If they did not view the child would not be abused, therefore I think these people deserve prison," she said.
The Sun's managing editor Graham Dudman told BBC Radio 4's Today's programme that people's reaction to Mr Gamble's comments would be "bafflement, outrage and anger".
"Viewing is the same as arranging or taking these photos. If we cannot protect our children by sending predatory paedophiles to prison then we have truly lost the plot."
Research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that 16% of women and 7% of men claimed to have been sexually abused involving physical contact before the age of 12. That suggests that one in nine pre-teenage children has suffered abuse.
The research helped to launch the charity's "full-stop" campaign to counter child abuse.