Reports of suspected child pornography climbed 39% in 2004, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which collects tips about the problem over the Web and by telephone.
The child-protection organization's CyberTipline logged more than 106,000 reports of child-pornography possession, creation, or distribution in 2004, the seventh consecutive year such incidents trended upward since the 24-hour hot line was established in 1998. "The totals have gone up remarkably each year," says Staca Urie, a supervisor with the National Center's Exploited Child Unit.
Urie attributes the increase, in part, to technologies such as digital cameras, peer-to-peer networking, and the Internet that have made it easier to create, distribute, hide, and access illicit images and videos. Yet, the growth in child-porn reports also is a reflection that Internet service providers are complying with federal law that requires them to take action against the problem, Urie says.
The National Center's CyberTipline also tracks child prostitution, online enticement, sexual molestation, and child sex "tourism," where under the Protect Act, made law in 2003, U.S. residents who sexually exploit children while traveling abroad can be prosecuted, as can child-sex tour operators and their co-conspirators. The tipline also tracks child pornography, which is by far the most frequently reported problem. Of all the incidents recorded, about 25% are forwarded to law-enforcement agencies such as the FBI, Justice Department, and Postal Inspection Service. Those reports and the remaining 75% of others are stored in a database that's available to law-enforcement officials.
Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division announced Tuesday that two executives of an Internet billing company in Belarus have been extradited from France to face child-pornography, money laundering, and other charges in U.S. federal court. Yahor Zalatarou and Alexei Buchnev are the president and marketing director of Regpay Co. Ltd., which is accused of providing billing services for 50 child-porn Web sites and operating its own such sites. The company's technical administrator, Aliaksandr Boika, was extradited from Spain in June to face similar charges.
The extraditions are part of an ongoing investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigations division, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The three Regpay employees were arrested in July 2003. So far, 190 people have been arrested in the United States and hundreds more in other countries as part of the investigation, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Yet, there's no way to track how many of the tips collected by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lead to arrests or convictions. Some experts believe law-enforcement agencies can't keep up with the scope of the problem. "The number of prosecutions is very small," says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to online safety. A lawyer, Aftab writes a column on privacy issues for InformationWeek.
Industry groups representing peer-to-peer companies, which are under pressure to curb the use of their products for illegal file sharing, which can include child pornography, have undertaken public-awareness campaigns. "We can and are playing a role in the education process and even in facilitating law enforcement," says Adam Eisgrau, executive director of Peer-to-Peer United. The trade association's Web site, P2PUnited.org, provides a link to the National Center's CyberTipline.
Additional material was added to this story Jan. 12.