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To bust child-porn rings, larger role sought for Internet service providers

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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."

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