Ethical Implications of Capturing Child Pornography Consumers on the Internet

Barney Dalgarno and John Weckert


In September 2004 the Australian Federal Police carried out a nationwide operation leading to the charging of around 200 consumers, producers and distributors of child pornography. The operation, codenamed Auxin, was the culmination of a five-month investigation which began after receiving information from the US customs service. As part of the operation 400 search warrants were issued and in most cases computer equipment was seized for analysis. While details on the methods used are sketchy, it appears that most of the investigation was conducted by tracing credit card details and transaction log files, acquired as part of investigations in the US. To what extent entrapment was used is unclear, but it is allowable under Australian law, and was used in another recent case where a man was arrested for soliciting sex over the Internet from what he thought was a 13 year old girl, but who was actually a member of the police force.

This case, Operation Auxin, highlights a number of challenges posed by the Internet, but one that is perhaps not so often recognised. Many of those caught (assuming that at least some are guilty) presumably did not realise that the Internet is a web in two senses. It is a web of interconnecting nodes, but also in the sense of a trap for the unwary. Using the Internet in the privacy of one’s own room gives a false sense of security and makes certain activities easy. Many of these people might not have engaged in this activity if the act of procurement of the material required more effort and had to be undertaken in public. So they were lured into the trap not only by their desire for the material, which initially may not have been great, but also by their ignorance of the architecture of the Internet.

Contrary to the belief of many Internet users, activities undertaken online are relatively easy to monitor or trace. Firstly, most people’s web browsing is carried out via an intermediate proxy-server either maintained by their Internet Service Provider (ISP) or as part of their workplace network. These proxy-servers keep a permanent log of all page requests. This is in addition to the logs kept on the server to which the requests are sent. (The server log files on a server in Belarus were obtained as part of the US operation that provided the initial information for Operation Auxin). In addition to most users being unaware that their web browsing habits are being recorded on a server, many users are also unaware of how difficult it is to permanently remove files from their own computer. Many users believe that if they delete files, empty their recycle bin or trash can, and clear their temporary internet files or cache, there will be no evidence of what they have downloaded or viewed. This is of course not the case, with utilities available to recover files deleted in any of these ways.

As a consequence of this widespread ignorance of the traceability of activities carried out online, the Internet can provide a kind of unintentional entrapment. Entrapment by law enforcement authorities is generally thought not to be justifiable if it entices people to undertake activities that they would not have under normal circumstances, and it is at least plausible that some of the charged would not have engaged in this activity if it had not appeared to be so easy. There is evidence that gambling increases with the availability of gambling facilities, so there is reason to think that the same might be true of participation in child pornography. Perhaps then the computer industry and the law enforcement authorities have a responsibility to educate people on the nature of the Internet and alert them to the fact that Internet activities are potentially just as open to exposure as activities undertaken in broad daylight in front of a crowd of people. The exploitation of children in pornography is particularly abhorrent to most, and there appear to have been a number of suicides of those charged. The shame of being charged was too great, it would seem. Education on the nature of the Internet is imperative, primarily of course to protect children, but also to warn potential offenders that it is not as safe as it looks.

The proposed paper will begin by describing Operation Auxin in more detail, focussing on the degree to which the activities of the police and those charged can be seen to be different in nature to the equivalent activities undertaken in the non-online world. The paper will then expand on some of the themes presented above. In particular, the concept of entrapment will be analysed in more depth with reference to relevant philosophical theory and research. The degree to which the Internet, by virtue of the way it implicitly encourages the undertaking of illegal activities, can facilitate a form of unintentional entrapment, will be further explored. The impact of other related technologies, such as digital cameras and particularly those in mobile telephones, on the prevalence of online pornography networks will also be discussed. There has been at least one recent case in Australia where photographs taken of young children on the beach were put on the Internet for pornographic purposes. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the implications for Internet service providers, technology vendors and educators.