It started out as a routine check of the computers at an Austrian Internet company. But the employee soon found in the electronic files a commercial child-pornography ring sexually abusing children as young as 5. Now, law-enforcement officials around the globe are starting an international pedophile hunt involving at least 2,360 subscribers in 77 countries.
To halt the child-porn scourge, law-enforcement officials, particularly in the United States, say such vigilance needs to happen more often – that is, for Internet service providers (ISPs), such as America Online, Verizon, or Time Warner, to root out people selling, trading, or displaying illegal pornographic images. In fact, many of them already are cooperating, but some US lawmakers, among others, want to go further: They want to require virtually all Internet mediums to provide tips they come across so cybercops can hunt down suspects. Included in the new front is an effort by US lawmakers to get more international countries and businesses on board, since only a handful of nations require companies to report the illegal activity.
"The concern is that we don't have an ISP, large or small, become a safe haven for this stuff," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, Va.
In the US, 309 ISPs, representing 90 percent of Internet traffic in the nation, have registered with Mr. Allen's organization to provide tips for federal agents to investigate. Since 1998, ISPs have provided NCMEC with 204,000 tips, says Allen. However, he estimates another 700 providers have yet to register. And officials know that those seeking child porn are continually looking for ways to avoid detection – in other words, looking for an operator who may have a laissez faire attitude.
But if Congress has anything to say about the matter, that may change. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the first anti-child-porn legislation of the year – a law that would expand the range of companies obligated to report illegal activity and increase the fines for those who don't.
"It's time to expand the law," says Rep. Nick Lampson (D) of Texas, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation. "We've got a lot more to do."
Representative Lampson says the current law, which dates back to 1998, needs to be updated. The new legislation would hold accountable newer Internet entries such as MySpace and Facebook (which are both already registered with NCMEC) in the same way as ISPs. "Anyone who hosts a site that perpetuates a crime against a child, chat rooms, or anything of that sort, we want to report to NCMEC," says the Texas congressman. Under the new proposed new law, called the SAFE Act of 2007, the already hefty fines would be tripled for failure to comply. Current fines range from $50,000 to $100,000.
ISPs in the US say they are "encouraged" that Congress is considering improvements in the old bill. However, Kate Dean, executive director of the United States Internet Service Provider Association, says there are "serious concerns" about the proposed legislation.
For example, the new law would require companies to preserve information for six months. "The preservation part is very unclear. We don't know what to preserve," says Ms. Dean.
In addition, she bristles at the idea of increasing fines – a suggestion of the US Attorney General's Office. "We've been reporting in good faith for 10 years," she says. "The fines are already pretty significant, and they have never enforced them."
Still, there is no doubt that international concern is rising. Last year, the FBI formed an international task force to fight child pornography.
In Paris last month, Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president, hosted a meeting of first ladies and woman leaders on global concerns about child exploitation. The participants – among them Laura Bush, Lyudmila Putin of Russia, and Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt – urged international collaboration to stop child pornography.
Members of the European Union must already comply with an E-Commerce Directive that requires ISPs to report illegal activity, including child pornography, once it comes to their attention. But it shields ISPs from liability for unwittingly providing access to illegal content.
So far only six countries – Australia, Belgium, Colombia, France, South Africa, and the US – require ISPs to report suspected child pornography to law-enforcement agencies. Many other countries count on volunteers or self-regulation to report the sites.
"Sometimes a website is hosted in one country, and by the time we pinpoint it, it hops to a server in another country," says Lene Nielsen of Internet Watch Foundation.
• Mariah Blake in Hamburg, Germany, and Ben Arnoldy in Boston contributed to this report.
[ Editor's note: The original version contained additional material.]