Pornographers on Internet skilled at covering tracks

Network impossible to censor, writes Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
The discovery of pornography by newcomers to the Internet is a daily occurrence. With many of the network's users being young men who find it easier to interact with a computer screen than a human, pornographic pictures abound.

Most of the content is mild, but some is not. Every inclination is catered for - including paedophilia. And while such pictures are reviled by most Internet users, there is no way to censor them, short of monitoring every single message that flows from every single user.

With an estimated 30 million people able to connect to the network, and that figure growing by about 10 per cent every couple of months, the task is beyond any person, government or computer program.

First, there is no central controller of the Internet: it is a loose confederation of computers interlinked by the telephone system. The equivalent of millions of copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica passes over the wires every day - most of it of no importance. Furthermore, even if someone did decide to monitor every message, they would find that publicly available encryption systems can turn pictures into text, and then turn that into a code uncrackable by even the best government computers. Only the correct "key" can reconstitute the original picture.

This is believed to be one of the methods used by the paedophiles who were part of the international group swapping pictures across the network.

Tracking down such people is an enormously difficult task because they leave few traces. Another option they can use are "anonymous remailers" - computers which receive messages and strip off the details of their sender, before forwarding it elsewhere on the network. It can be argued that remailers help perverts. But they also help those who need to hide their identity, such as the sexually abused and whistleblowers.

The biggest worry for parents is that children using the Internet will be contacted by paedophiles and lured away. In June two American children were found far away from home, apparently tempted away by "friends" made through on-line computer services. But the answer, Internet users say, is parental education rather than draconian legislation.