Computer Crime Research Center


A typology of online child pornography offending

Date: May 16, 2005
Source: Australian Institute of Criminology
By: Tony Krone, PhD

... in sexual acts with young children (mostly boys aged less than 10). Dodge pleaded guilty to child pornography charges for supplying another prisoner with these stories and of possessing the stories himself. The appeal court noted that a prison sentence was required because the law sought to prevent access to child pornography. However, the fact that no child was involved in producing the material was taken into account in reducing the sentence from 18 to 12 months.

In contrast to the law in Australia, the United States' Child Pornography Prevention Act 1996 was a federal law that sought to prohibit virtual child pornography. However the relevant provision was struck down for being too widely drafted. In Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition (00-795) 535 US 234 (2002) the United States Supreme Court held that the section infringed the First Amendment right to free speech. The provision defined child pornography widely using the words 'appears to be' and 'conveys the impression' in relation to depicting a person under the age of 18. The Court found this wording too broad in the absence of any requirement in the same provision for the prosecution to prove that the material is obscene.

Artistic merit or scientific or other purpose

The question of artistic merit must be considered in relation to whether material is offensive to a reasonable adult person or not. In South Australia, a work of artistic merit is exempted if there is not undue emphasis on its indecent or offensive aspects.

Material may not be classed as child pornography if it is held in good faith for the advancement or dissemination of legal, medical or scientific knowledge.

Possession for law enforcement purposes

Where not specifically exempted in the same legislative package, law enforcement officers rely on general powers of investigation and for the keeping of evidentiary material to retain child pornography for law enforcement purposes. Child pornography laws in NSW, Victoria, WA and NT allow a law enforcement officer to possess child pornography in the exercise or performance of a power, function or duty imposed by or under any Act or law.

Categorising child pornography

Police often distinguish between five categories of child pornographic images. The categories were originally developed in the United Kingdom based on the 10-point typology of such images developed by COPINE. These range from nudist shots and surreptitious eroticised underwear or semi-naked shots, through to penetrative sexual assault and sadism or bestiality (Table 2). While it may be beneficial for police to prioritise their investigations by reference to the seriousness of the images involved, the full extent of an offender's collection may not be known until an investigation is well under way.

Table 2 : Categories of child pornography
Level Description COPINE typology
1 Images depicting nudity or erotic posing, with no sexual activity
  • Nudist (naked or semi-naked in legitimate settings/sources);
  • Erotica (surreptitious photographs showing underwear/nakedness);
  • Posing (deliberate posing suggesting sexual content); and
  • Explicit erotic posing (emphasis on genital area)
2 Sexual activity between children, or solo masturbation by a childExplicit sexual activity not involving an adult
3 Non-penetrative sexual activity between adult(s) and child(ren)Assault (sexual assault involving an adult)
4 Penetrative sexual activity between adult(s) and child(ren)Gross assault (penetrative assault involving an adult)
5 Sadism or bestiality Sadistic/bestiality (sexual images involving pain or animals)
Source: Sentencing Advisory Panel 2002

As indicated above, not all material in the categories of nudist or erotica would fit the legal definition of child pornography. The courts must consider the context surrounding the making or keeping of material in deciding whether it is child pornography or not.

When it comes to assessing the severity of an offence of possessing child pornography, it is not enough to measure the number of images of various types involved. There are other indicators of seriousness, such as the offender's engagement with the material. This may include how long it has been held, the degree to which it is organised by the offender, how it was acquired, and whether it is a trophy of the offender's own sexual abuse of a child (Taylor &Quayle 2003).

How are offences committed online? A typology of offending

As noted by Taylor and Quayle (2003), the Internet provides the social, individual and technological circumstances in which an interest in child pornography flourishes.

- Social The Internet has been used to create a self-justifying online community for child pornography users.
- Individual Using the Internet, individuals can access material and communicate with others through a computer terminal providing an apparently private sphere for the expression of sexual fantasy.
- Technological Digital technology and the Internet make it possible for child pornography consumers to become obsessive collectors so that the collection of images becomes an end in itself. The Internet also provides a ready means to access material supporting increasingly extreme sexual fantasies. It can then be used to act out those fantasies with children in online interactions or in physical meetings arranged online.

Knowing the differences in how online child pornography offences are committed is vitally important to understanding and combating the problem of sexual exploitation of children. What follows is a discussion of the typology of offending (summarised in Table 3). There is an increasing seriousness of offending, from offences that do not directly involve a child, to offences that involve direct contact with children, and from online grooming to physical abuse.

Table 3: A typology of online child pornography offending
Type of involvement Features Level of networking by offender Security Nature of abuse
BrowserResponse to spam, accidental hit on suspect site - material knowingly savedNilNilIndirect
Private fantasyConscious creation of online text or digital images for private useNilNilIndirect
TrawlerActively seeking child pornography using openly available browsersLowNilIndirect
Non-secure collectorActively seeking material often through peer-to-peer networksHighNilIndirect
Secure collectorActively seeking material but only through secure networks. Collector syndrome and exchange as an entry barrierHighSecureIndirect
GroomerCultivating an online relationship with one or more children. The offender may or may not seek material in any of the above ways. Pornography may be used to facilitate abuseVaries - online contact with individual children Security depends on childDirect
Physical abuserAbusing a child who may have been introduced to the offender online. The offender may or may not seek material in any of the above ways. Pornography may be used to facilitate abuse Varies - physical contact with individual childrenSecurity depends on childDirect
ProducerRecords own abuse or that of others (or induces children to submit images of themselves)Varies - may depend on whether becomes a distributorSecurity depends on childDirect
DistributorMay distribute at any one of the above levelsVariesTends to be secureIndirect


A browser may come across child pornography unintentionally (for example via spam) but then decide to keep it. This is an offence if it can be proved they formed the intention to possess the material. In the absence of a confession, this may be shown by surrounding circumstances, such as repeat visits to a site. Whether a person is an accidental browser or not is a question of fact.

Private fantasy

If a person has a private fantasy involving sex with a child, no offence is committed. If that fantasy is preserved as something more than a thought, then an offence may be involved. The representation of that fantasy in text or digital format on a computer may be sufficient to...
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