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Netting paedophiles

What kind of minds could think up a child porn computer amnesty?

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

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The ‘what do we do about online paedophiles?’ debate has taken a new turn in the UK, with a controversial proposal by Donald Findlater, deputy director of child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and former director of the Wolvercote Clinic residential treatment centre for paedophiles.

Findlater has proposed a child pornography amnesty, whereby individuals who possess indecent images of children hand in their computer hard-drives to the police, to be destroyed or wiped clean. They are spared prosecution in court, provided that they volunteer for counselling – but they are still placed on the sex offenders register.

The proposal met with fierce criticism. The Sun newspaper, for example, complained that such a scheme ‘will do children no favours at all and give evil men a break they do not deserve’. But the proposal has also won significant support from the likes of the charity Barnardo’s, and is being seriously considered by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Findlater has justified his proposal by saying that ‘exposure to child pornography increases the likelihood of people becoming riskier around children’, but ‘I don’t believe that criminal law is the best way of resolving these major social problems’ (1).

Is online paedophilia really a ‘major social problem’? Apparently so. The US ‘Operation Avalanche’ investigation into websites that supplied child pornorgraphy in exchange for payment via credit card, whose results were announced by the US authorities in August 2001, discovered over 7,000 individuals in the UK who had allegedly downloaded obscene images of children.

The ‘Operation Ore’ investigation subsequently conducted into these individuals by the UK authorities, involving more than 3,200 police raids mounted from May 2002 onwards, resulted in (according to Home Office figures) 723 suspects being charged, and 277 convictions. The Crown Prosecution Service eventually had to resort to drawing up guidelines grading the obscene images in order of five levels of seriousness, and advising that those found in possession of less serious images be released with a caution (2).

Operation Avalanche and Operation Ore involved a massive deployment of resources by the authorities in both the USA and the UK, to little practical effect. If the number of paedophiles that the authorities need to apprehend is as high as Operation Ore suggests, let alone as high as child protection organisations perpetually tell us it is, then it is difficult to see how the problem could feasibly be tackled.

This difficulty led to a curious debate between Donald Findlater and John Carr, associate director of the charity National Children’s Homes, on the BBC1 Breakfast programme on 10 December. Findlater made the case for his proposed scheme on the basis that police resources are insufficient to prosecute the number of paedophiles in our midst; while Carr argued that in fact, police resources are insufficient even to make Findlater’s proposed amnesty workable.

How did we arrive at a situation where so many people in society are considered to be dangerous paedophiles that the authorities are at a loss as to what to do with them?

Indecent images of children are undoubtedly upsetting, and the ease with which they can be disseminated on the internet causes understandable concern – although it’s also the case that child pornography has been given greater mainstream prominence by the number of newspaper column inches devoted to paedophile scare stories than the internet alone could ever have provided. It is all the more important, then, to keep child pornography in some sort of rational perspective, rather than letting our emotions dominate our response to it. Only then will we be able to ascertain what, if any, tangible harm is being done to children, and deal it with it appropriately.

But far from responding to the online availability of child pornography rationally, the child protection industry has taken every opportunity to inflate the problem, characterising anyone who consumes child pornography, or even has a potentially indecent thought about children, as a child-abuser-in-waiting; and characterising every unknown quantity surrounding child pornography as sinister.

So discussing a new database being used by the police to identify paedophiles and their victims, Ute Navidi, head of policy at ChildLine, says ominously: ‘We know that the police have already got 220,000 images on the new childbase database. But we believe that’s only possibly the tip of the iceberg.’ Or as John Carr told me recently when I debated the issue with him on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, ‘what we don’t know about are all of the cases where the police couldn’t get enough evidence together’ (3).

Such unsubstantiated scaremongering has been highly successful in raising the profile of paedophilia, in the UK and elsewhere, and has been accompanied by various developments in the law that confuse the previously distinct categories of thoughts about children and acts upon children (4). But these tactics come at a price. When the problem of paedophilia is defined as broadly as this, then all of us become tagged as potential paedophiles. As Jennie Bristow observes elsewhere on spiked, ‘the assumption is that child abuse is a far bigger problem than we ever imagined – that, in fact, child abuse is all around us, and most people are only one temptation away from committing acts of unspeakable depravity’ (Who’s got a dirty mind?, by Jennie Bristow).

This is why Tink Palmer, principal policy officer at Barnardo’s, can claim in support of Findlater’s proposal that ‘if every person who had a sexual interest in children was identified…I think you would be amazed’. And while Carr may have reservations about Findlater’s proposal, he argues that the proposal deserves a hearing, because ‘anything that might help men locked into a pattern of downloading abusive images of children come forward for assessment and treatment before they rape their own daughter should be seriously considered’ (5).

For some child protection campaigners, even Findlater’s proposal does not go far enough in addressing the sheer number of paedophiles that allegedly exist in society. Rachel O’Connell, author of the alarmist academic research paper A Typology of Child Cybersexploitation and Online Grooming Practices, responded to the proposal by warning: ‘Much online paedophile activity is based around exchanging fantasies about child abuse and role playing abusive scenarios, and grooming activity – where they befriend children with the aim of meeting up with them to abuse them. So the police would also need to check for evidence of these activities.’ (6)

Presumably, this would mean the police checking all of our emails and our chatroom transcripts, to make sure we’ve not been having any suspicious exchanges with children. But then, what about the increasing quantities of pornographic spam email we receive? We could protest that we have no control over the email that other people send us. But if we’ve opened a spam email by accident, and seen child pornography, does that increase ‘the likelihood of people becoming riskier around children’, as Findlater puts it?

Unless Findlater, Carr, Navidi, Palmer, O’Connell et al have got particularly good spam filters on their workplace email, perhaps they should be the first to hand their computers in to the police and volunteer for counselling.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Communication breakdown, by Sandy Starr

Shevaun and the scaremongers, by Sandy Starr

We scare because we care, by Sandy Starr

(1) No let-offs, The Sun, 10 December 2003; An amnesty for internet paedophiles?, BBC News, Brian Wheeler, 9 December 2003

(2) UK’s child porn record under fire, BBC News, 8 December 2003; Sex offenders let off the hook, Martin Bright, Observer, 28 September 2003

(3) Childbase: Ask the experts, BBC News, 24 July 2003; Communication breakdown, by Sandy Starr

(4) See Fetishising images, by Barbara Hewson; Blunkett under the blanket, by Josie Appleton; Defending the indefensible online, by Sandy Starr

(5) The amnesty that never was, John Carr, Guardian, 11 December 2003

(6) An amnesty for internet paedophiles?, BBC News, Brian Wheeler, 9 December 2003; Talk not court advocated for net paedophiles, David Batty, Guardian, 10 December 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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