I welcome the life sentences given to the two ringleaders of the Edinburgh internet child abuse network. The nature of the Edinburgh men's offences - raping the children of close friends - should be remembered next time there is an internet privacy scare. I don't mind Big Brother watching me if he is also watching, and moving in on, people who hurt children for profit and pleasure.
So it is good to hear that Scottish police forces and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency have launched Operation Alba using technology that allows them to spy on internet paedophiles more easily. The Edinburgh case underlines our need to support the work of agencies such as The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Internet Watch Foundation which monitor this sort of crime. We should seriously consider the suggestion from the senior investigating officer that everyone has an internet access identity which would be withdrawn from sex offenders. Could it be practically implemented? Only through a comprehensive, biometric ID card scheme which doesn't have public support at present. Yet as a society we do have to talk about how much we are willing to compromise invidual privacy to protect the vulnerable.
Too much of the debate around child abuse has focussed on "curing" perpetretors understood to be mentally ill. But those sentenced yesterday were anything but sad loners desperate for treatment. They were part of a large online community who trade anecdotes and images, who validate and normalise each others’ behaviour.
Pornography is one of the few examples of web “content” that can be easily “monetised”. The Internet Watch Foundation found that 74% of child sex abuse domains were traced to commercial operations last year.
One is always wary of blaming the means of communication for the crime. Children were raped by dreadful men long before Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web. But the internet has increased the amount of child pornography being made, expanded the number of men who view it and created a market demand that is satisfied by putting real children through pain, humiliation and misery.
With cyberspace catering for every kind of sexual preference, it’s not hard to see how some individuals convince themselves that they are simply making a consumer choice. The social networking aspect legitimises that choice — there is the sense of being part of a like-minded group, a sense of belonging.
For more on this read my column on why we should be prepared to sacrifice some online privacy in order to slow the growth of child abuse. It was written when the men were orginally convicted earlier this year.