updated 6/9/2004 4:54:06 PM ET 2004-06-09T20:54:06

Police in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States are planning joint patrols of Internet chat rooms in search of pedophiles, a senior British officer said Wednesday.

Forces from the four nations hope to introduce a "24/7 police presence on the Internet," said Assistant Chief Constable Jim Gamble of the National Crime Squad.

Speaking at the end of a three-day meeting involving the squad, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Australian Federal Police, Gamble said officers in different countries would take turns to keep a round-the-clock watch on the Net.

While the number of officers assigned to chat patrol is expected to be modest, the forces hope their program will have a deterrent effect.

Police presence in chat rooms
"We are not looking to occupy every chat room," Gamble said. "We're looking to put a police presence on the Internet in an overt way that reassures people."

He said forces were working on developing a "simple visible logo" to indicate police presence in a chat room.

He would not give details about the cost of the program or the number of officers involved. "I don't think we're talking about devoting massive numbers to this," he said.

In December, police forces from several countries began a collaboration, the Virtual Global Task Force, to crack down on child abuse on the Internet.

Gamble likened the chat room operation to police street patrols.

"People feel safer when police are present, it's as simple as that," he said. "There is no Big Brother initiative here, this is about reassurance through visibility."

Although police could intervene if a child was asked for his or her address while in a chat room, Gamble said officers would not operate undercover to flush out criminals.

Children's charities welcomed the proposal

"This is an important step forward in protecting children," said Christine Atkinson, Internet safety adviser with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "It will help close a major supply line for sex abusers who go to great lengths to gain access to innocent children by grooming them on the Internet."

The initiative follows on an FBI-led operation which has tracked down thousands of people around the world suspected of accessing child pornography over the Internet.

Forces in several countries also have collaborated to set up sites that appear to offer images of child pornography but lead to warnings of jail and other penalties for accessing such material.

Gamble said police were lobbying for more power to seize assets of people convicted of running pay-per-view child porn Web sites, and pressing credit cards firms to do more to stop customers using plastic to buy pornography.

He said police were seeking legal advice about whether it would be possible to tell credit card companies when their customers were convicted of such offenses.

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