Experts at a conference on child pornography on the Internet have heard that Switzerland is a "developing country" when it comes to stopping such abuse.
The two-day conference in Balsthal, Solothurn, was organised by the Swiss branch of ECPAT, a group dedicated to preventing the sexual exploitation of children. Police officers, lawyers, psychologists and other experts involved in combating child pornography were invited to speak.
Andreas Brunner, president of ECPAT and public prosecutor for canton Zurich, told the conference that Switzerland lagged behind its European counterparts in the campaign to tackle child pornography on the Internet.
"We really don't have the resources necessary to deal with the problem," Brunner said. "And it seems we don't have the political will. So we hope this conference will change things."
Christian Schwarzenegger, professor of law at the University of Zurich, agrees that Switzerland's judicial structures make prosecutions difficult.
"The legal basis is there to tackle this sort of crime," Schwarzenegger told swissinfo. "But it's done at cantonal level which makes things difficult. Many of the smaller cantons don't have the resources to investigate and prosecute international crime, which is what pornography on the Internet is."
Internet makes crime easier
The Internet is sometimes described as a liberating force, a great equaliser, something which provides information and the means of communication cheaply to billions of people.
But John Carr, who is associate director of Britain's Children and Technology Unit, told the ECPAT conference that the Internet also makes committing certain types of crime much easier.
"What the Internet does is allow the bad guys to talk to each other easily," Carr told swissinfo. "And if they use modern encryption technology it's hard for law enforcement agencies to catch them."
No one really knows just how big the business in child pornography really is, but the experts at the conference agreed that it is growing, and that the Internet makes that growth easier. And, it seems, law enforcement officers all over the world find it difficult to keep pace with the new technology.
"We're playing catch up all the time," said Steven Quick, of London's metropolitan police. "We often feel as if the pornographers are driving a Rolls Royce, and we're trying to catch them on a bicycle."
Governments reluctant to control the Internet
One difficult issue in the campaign to prevent child pornography on the Internet is how much control authorities should impose on the World Wide Web.
At the moment Internet providers operate certain controls on a voluntary basis, but there are some calls for governments to make these controls obligatory, thus making providers whose sites carry child pornography liable to prosecution.
"It's a very tricky issue," said John Carr. On the one hand governments want to prevent child pornography, but on the other hand they don't want to introduce new laws which could stifle the development of the Internet."
"But if the industry fails to protect children with its voluntary code of good practice," Carr continued, "then there will certainly be very loud calls for much stronger intervention than we have seen so far."
Users are also abusers
There is growing evidence that the victims of child pornography are not just the children who are forced to appear in it. Research carried out in the United States revealed that over 30 per cent of individuals convicted of possessing child pornography had also sexually abused children in their neighbourhoods.
"That means that if you find someone in possession of child pornography there is a better than one in three chance that that person is also a child abuser," said Carr. "So any child that that person is in contact with could be in danger."
New monitoring unit
In Switzerland a new national coordination centre will be set up to monitor pornography on the Internet. It is the successor of a much smaller unit, which operated only for a few months, and the job of the new centre will be to seek out and identify criminal acts on the Internet.
Switzerland has also recently toughened its sexual abuse laws. From April of this year simple possession of child pornography became a criminal offence. And convicted child abusers can be sentenced to up to life imprisonment. Victims under the age of 16 have until their 25th birthday to bring charges against their abusers.
For the time being investigation and prosecution will remain the responsibility of the cantons, although there have been calls for a federal prosecuting authority, as exists for organised crime.
"We need much more sophisticated national and international cooperation," said law professor Christian Schwarzenegger. "But the international community is working on it. We will soon have ratification of an international convention on cyber crime, which means that a prosecutor in Zurich can easily get help from his counterpart in Germany, or in Japan, for example."
This kind of cooperation is vital in fighting crime on the Internet. A child pornography site which seems to be located in Switzerland for example, can turn out, after a long electronic chase, to be registered in the Philippines, its provider is in Korea, but it is operated from Russia.
Controlling the way billions of people around the world use the Internet will be then, a long, expensive and difficult task, involving careful consideration of the rights to privacy of the majority of perfectly innocent Internet users.
But, in order to protect children, some controls seem inevitable. "When we're talking about how to proceed in this field I don't like to use the term child pornography," said police officer Steven Quick. "What I prefer to call it is clear evidence of the abuse of a child, and that is a crime."
by Imogen Foulkes