Staff writer

With the removal of a loophole that made Japan the center of child pornography for Internet pedophiles worldwide, police in Japan now face the daunting task of finding, identifying and nabbing offenders.

Long before the law against child prostitution and pornography went into effect Monday, child pornography Web sites went “underground,” said Yutaka Iimori, director of Cyber Angels’ Japan division, an Internet watchdog group. “You won’t find anything by searching for ‘kiddie porn’ on Yahoo.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

After the passage in April of legislation banning the sale, distribution, production, possession and trading of child pornography, Japanese law enforcement officers were soon inundated with information on URLs from police and activists abroad.

The numbers alone are daunting.

Cyber Angels claims to have information on some 300 Japan-based Web sites that was promptly turned over to local police officials in October. More images, totaling about 50, reached Iimori on Friday for analysis.

“The situation is serious,” said Yuji Fujiyama, an official from the Juvenile Division of the National Police Agency. “Some say perpetrators have been frightened into getting their stuff off the Net — I don’t believe it.”

The numbers have been rising exponentially in the last couple of years, he said. Police are monitoring vastly more than the 41 child pornography Web sites that were reported by foreign organizations last year, which in turn was a jump from the two to three sites reported in the years before that.

Prior to the passage of the law, pedophiles worldwide could use Japan as a base for putting their material on the Internet with near impunity.

Authorities could only prosecute images that violated Article 175 of the Criminal Code, or the so-called obscenity law, which in practice was applied to the explicit display of genitals.

This meant it was difficult to prosecute the creator of a Web site that showed an underage teen exchanging sexual caresses with an adult, but with genitals hidden by a turn of the thigh. “Child porn was not unchecked,” Fujiyama said. “But there were many cases when there was just nothing we could do.”

Japan offered pedophiles worldwide “fast, cheap and efficient access” to the Internet, said Parry Aftab, a lawyer and executive director of Cyber Angels, which is based in the United States. Cyber Angels estimates that 40 percent of all child pornography Web sites have addresses in Japan.

“Japan often gets blamed for this, but the truth is, most are put here by the West, for Westerners, and most of the children shown are Caucasian,” Aftab said in an interview with The Japan Times. Many may only pretend to be located in Japan to foil authorities, who often give up when they see a Japanese URL, she said.

Authorities say the new law, which also makes it illegal to have sex with anyone age 17 or younger, categorizes child pornography as child abuse and allows police to crack down on anyone suspected of using a Japanese Internet provider to publish child porn, no matter what country that person is in.

Offenders can be punished with up to three years in prison, or fines of up to 3 million yen.

But police have much ground to cover to be effective at tracking down peddlers of kiddie porn on the Net.

Perpetrators constantly change encryption methods and stay on the move, said Interpol official Ralf Mutschke. Frequently in communication with one another, all too often catching one means alerting the others, who escape, he said.

This makes cooperation with Internet service providers essential for police to obtain comprehensive information quickly, but ISPs are wary.

Roger Boisvert, president of Global Online Japan, has been working with the Metropolitan Police Department since March to aid attempts to crack down on computer fraud and child pornography. Law enforcement authorities all too often do not understand the Internet, he said.

Not only are the police behind in expertise, “they don’t know how to approach us for help,” he said.

“They come and they say, tell us who is using this e-mail address, and where does he live? And we say, ‘Hell no,'” Boisvert said.

Authorities must give just cause and demonstrate an urgent need to identify a person, he said, before providers can launch a search to pinpoint someone.

“We can’t just give away personal information like that,” Boisvert said. “We want to cooperate, but they make it so difficult.”

Cyber Angels director Iimori also voiced concerns. “The Internet is borderless,” he said. “But that’s not the way police work. They have different jurisdictions, and it’s all very frustrating when time is so important” (to stop abuse.)

But at least the law makes a statement.

“(Pedophiles) are clever — they will almost always be one step ahead of us,” Interpol’s Mutschke said. “But now we are sending the message: we will get them in the end.”

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