Image control

The plethora of illegal pornography on the internet requires international policing. Is web technology up to tracking offenders, asks SA Mathieson

On Home Office plans to criminalise the possession of extreme adult pornography.

Powered by article titled “Image control” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Wednesday 7th September 2005 23.01 UTC

The Obscene Publications Act makes it illegal to publish material that tends to deprave and corrupt those viewing it. When passed in 1959, and even when equivalent Scottish legislation was passed in 1982, it was difficult for publishers to distribute such material from abroad.

With the internet, such publication is very easy. In 1988, laws passed in both England and Scotland also criminalised possession – which includes viewing images online – of indecent images of children.

But this is not the case for extreme adult pornography: images of serious sexual violence, necrophilia and bestiality. Last week, the Home Office and Scottish Executive proposed changing this, making possession punishable by up to three years in prison.

In a foreword to the public consultation, which is open until December 2, Home Office minister Paul Goggins and Scottish Executive justice minister Cathy Jamieson say that these offences “will mirror the arrangements already in place in respect of child pornography. The intention is to reduce the demand for such material and to send a clear message that it has no place in our society”.

But would such legislation achieve much beyond sending a message? The consultation notes: “We are not aware of any western jurisdiction which prohibits simple possession of extreme material.”

By contrast, possession of indecent images of children is illegal in numerous countries, enabling international co-operation. The UK’s largest investigation of online paedophile activity, Operation Ore, relied on the US Federal Bureau of Investigations collecting around 250,000 credit cards numbers used to pay for access to a US child pornography web-site, and passing on more than 7,000 from the UK.

Formal structures are being created for such cooperation, such as the Virtual Global Taskforce, which includes the UK’s National Crime Squad, police agencies in Australia, Canada and the US and Interpol. In December 2003 the taskforce launched Operation PIN, setting up fake child abuse web-sites. These captured the details of a number of individuals when they attempted to download an image, then told them that they had committed an offence and their data would be passed to the relevant national authority. It is usually possible to trace web users through data recorded by a web server.

A National Crime Squad spokesperson says that no prosecutions followed this data collection, but adds that the priority was crime reduction. The taskforce is also planning a 24-hour-a-day online policing presence, with officers from the four member countries involved in online patrols such as overt visits to chatrooms. This will be discussed at a meeting between the member agencies in Canberra next week.

In June, the G8 club of rich countries agreed to help Interpol to establish a £2 million system linking countries’ databases of such images, and later this month the UK will hand an implementation study on this to Interpol. The UK’s national database, Childbase, contains 800,000 images, allowing swifter identification of victims using facial recognition.

Such international cooperation would help in investigating extreme pornography, as all the publishers appear to be outside the UK. The Internet Watch Foundation says that 60% of the 140 adult pornographic sites it checked in the first six months of this year which appeared to contravene the Obscene Publications Act appeared to be US-based, with 14% in China and 4% in Russia. None was British.

In an emailed response, an FBI spokesperson says cooperation similar to Operation Ore would be possible for extreme pornography, adding: “It is not an easy answer though. In the US we have obscenity laws that make it a violation to post lewd material online. How that is defined and enforced is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” by enforcement agencies and government prosecutors.

“Policing this, from a single country point of view, is going to be a nightmare,” predicts Tony Dearsley, senior computer investigations manager at UK computer forensics firm Vogon International. “How do you get to these people? Like most cross-border issues, unless you have got an agreement or an identical offence, it will be very unlikely to get a warrant to get information or shut [a site] down.” He adds that extreme pornography is often free to access, without requiring the credit card payments which enabled Operation Ore.

Dearsley says that Vogon has seen such material on computers belonging to suspects in rape and murder cases: hard drives often retain traces of all files they have stored, despite attempts to erase and overwrite them.

This could represent an alternative way to investigate the proposed crime. A Home Office spokesperson says that data on a suspect’s computer often gives clues to others, adding that employers, internet service providers, credit card providers and the public would also be likely to provide leads.

But David Wilson, professor of criminology at the University of Central England, says that technological change is likely to make policing possession of extreme pornography very difficult. His research with paedophiles found that, after Operation Ore, they switched to peer-to-peer networks and net-enabled mobile telephones. “Usually, the law’s a step behind,” says Professor Wilson. “You have to look at why society produces these people in the first place.”


Home Office announcement and consultation

Guardian report on Operation Ore,3604,1192073,00.html

Virtual Global Taskforce

Internet Watch Foundation response

Opinion column by Prof David Wilson,12449,1559597,00.html © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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