The frontline of the internet

ACMAToday 65 Australians have been arrested accused of downloading child abuse material from a Canadian website. Nic Christensen recently met the Australian team responsible for auditing the most disturbing content on the internet, the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s content classification division.

Media watchdog the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) usually makes headlines for its stoushes with radio shock jocks such as Kyle Sandilands and Alan Jones.

But deep within the authority’s Sydney headquarters, in a sectioned-off office behind frosted glass windows and a high security electronic lock, members of the ACMA’s content classification team have a lesser known role, monitoring the darker corners of the world wide web. Within that remit falls the challenging task of tracking what the public and the media often labels ‘child pornography’.

The ACMA has a policy to not grant media interviews with the unit however in early September, to coincide with National Child Protection Week, Encore was given access.

The unit, known as the content classification division, is made up of a team of 10 people overseen by section manager Jeremy Fenton.

Fenton, who has been with the unit for more than a decade, explains that while society may use the term ‘child pornography’ his team does not. The label used is ‘child sexual abuse material’. He says: “The material we deal with can range from highly sexualised posing of children to contact offences, which can sometimes be combined with torture and violence. We don’t use the term ‘child pornography’. Pornography implies a legitimacy that is not there.”

In 2012, the ACMA Hotline, which investigates complaints by Australians about potential illegal online content, received 2,283 complaints about alleged online child abuse material. Of these 1,282 were found to be child abuse material.

“If you do the numbers, that’s not an insignificant amount of work for 10 people. Not everybody can do a job like this,” says Fenton. “It’s probably fair to say that one of the big skills and one of the reasons they’re here with us is that they have a resilience and ability to do this kind of work.”

The unit contains a cross section of Australian society spanning both genders and a range of ages from people in their 20s to those in their 40s and 50s. Some of the team are parents themselves. There is also diversity of backgrounds including former police officers and lawyers, but also others with a broader public service background. The one commonality is a shared interest in the internet, media and the law.

Amy is a 28-year-old former commercial lawyer. She says: “I had a strong interest in the internet, intellectual property, and internet law. There was a synergy there. I was working as a lawyer and then I decided, I wanted to work in internet regulation from the government side rather than just the private side.”

Turnover in the unit is low. The majority of the team have been on board for at least three years. Some have been here for more than four years after the section was expanded and restructured in response to a growing number of complaints about illegal online content.

One of the longest serving members of the team is Mark. In his 30s, Mark is one of the unit’s technical experts. He took the job because he wanted to make a difference. He says: “For me, it’s a very black and white area. There is no question in anyone’s mind that this is wrong and that we are achieving good through the process.”

The ACMA takes steps to ensure the mental health of staff in the unit with regular counselling. Exposure to disturbing content is also limited to a maximum of four hours a day. Mark says: “When I go home of a night, I know I’ve actually done something. It is a personal feeling that I’ve done something to make the internet a safer place. It gives you a good feeling like you’re contributing to the community. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that every single person in this room has a different motivation and a different way of coping with it.”

Section manager Fenton says there are a variety of techniques used by the team to help deal with the content. He says: “Some of them will minimise the number of times they see content. Others will keep it small on the screen, for example.”

Often it’s not the images but rather it is the sound that is most troubling. Fenton says: “Most of us won’t listen to sound unless we absolutely have to. If you’ve already established that it is child abuse material why would you listen to the sound?”

Section veteran Mark says: “The other technique I use is to remember they’re just pixels. It’s a trick and in many ways it can be seen as a horrendous trick because we know that there are children behind it. But in order to come in every day and do this job, I tell myself it’s just ones and zeros that come together to form  pixels.”

Members of the unit also keep a distinct separation between work and home life. Another team member, Jane, says: “Once I’m out the door it’s not something I like to think about. That’s quite a legitimate coping strategy.” In addition to this, Jane only selectively shares information about her work.

“My close friends know what I do,” she says. “But, for example, members of my family don’t know because it is not something I feel that everyone wants to know about.” Several members of the team have grappled with the classic dinner party question “What do you do for a living?” Most keep their responses vague answering simply that they are public servants.


Due to concerns about alerting pedophile and criminal networks of their monitoring techniques, the ACMA is hesitant to discuss in detail the prevalence and spread of child abuse material on the web.

Fenton says: “I’m very reluctant to go into details, but what I would say is that your average internet user would be highly surprised at the obfuscation methods used to avoid detection. If you know the right path to access content, you will see the content that has been placed there by someone undertaking highly illegal activity. But if you’re not aware of the correct path, you see something innocuous.”

Despite a perception that material of this nature is produced by pedophiles to share with each other, increasingly child abuse material is driven by criminals networks with commercial motivations. Fenton says: “These are often criminal syndicates. A significant proportion of what we’re looking at is commercial in one sense or another.”

Combating this horrendous prospect is clearly a motivator for Fenton and his team. Mark says: “There is something inherently rewarding in finding something which is quite disgusting and taking action and then coming in a couple of days later and finding it has been taken down. The work that we do here is super quick.”

Toby, a 32-year-old former police detective and child protection officer, is the newest recruit to the unit. While he’s only been on board for three months, he knows the job has an expiry date. He says: “It’s been something I have been thinking about. I’d like to get through three years. If I reached that threshold, I’d look back and see it as time extremely well spent.”

The former policeman is not alone. His colleague Amy says: “I’m aware that this isn’t a job you can do forever, at least for the vast majority of people. I haven’t put a time on it. I tend to use my three monthly counselling sessions as a chance to check in and go ‘okay, have I reached my limit? No? Okay, then I’ll keep going’. So far I haven’t hit that point but when that day comes I will find something else to do.”

The job requires a level of detachment that few other occupations require. Amy says: “One of the things we are taught is not to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ and ask ourselves ‘oh, that poor child. I wonder if she was rescued?’ When you are looking at the image, you have to cut off that kind of thinking and instead go through the workflow of what is the investigative process. It’s one of the risks of getting into that way of thinking and then it becomes much harder to cope with the content.”

“It was hard when I first started in the job but now I find it quite easy,” she says. “You employ the techniques you are taught by the counsellor over and over again and then it becomes the default. It is a constant effort. It is never easy, but you have to look after your health.”


Domestically, there are a comparatively small number of instances where child abuse material is directly hosted in Australia. Sites in the US and the Netherlands are usually the preferred hosting countries of criminal and pedophile networks.

Richard Bean, deputy chairman of the ACMA, says: “The internet means people are now far more connected to society and are therefore more exposed to illegal material. We have had cases where we have been able to track material all around the world and arrive back in Australia. Police have been able to make arrests in a matter of days. There are real cases of children that have been identified and rescued.”

Recently a 47-year-old man from the Gold Coast was convicted and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison after being arrested in February 2012 by members of Task Force Argos, a specialised branch of the Queensland police responsible for the investigation of online child exploitation and abuse. The arrest was the direct result of a tip off from the ACMA content classification division which saw police act within hours.

Mark says: “When you look at the publicly accessible child abuse material that is directed to an English speaking background, we are hitting the vast majority of it. If it’s publicly available, we get a lot of it, probably most of it.”

The ACMA’s Bean says: “We must not forget that every time we take down the image of a real child, we are preventing the re-victimisation of the child. It is absolutely worthwhile. Even if there is a flood of the content which we aren’t able to reach.”

To mark National Child Protection Week, the frosted glass windows of the office are covered with little human figures. Pink figures represent girls while blue is for boys. The figures indicate the number of children affected by the work of the team.

In the five days prior to Encore’s visit, members of the division conducted a record 418 investigations. This required the viewing of some 4,700 images and by week’s end figures of more than 4,300 girls and 400 boys covered the walls of the ACMA’s offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Fenton says: “This week we are actually counting the individual children in images. Normally, we wouldn’t do that, because I suspect it would send us all crazy. However, this is the one week a year where we stop and actually humanise what we do.”

The human dimension raises the question of whether Fenton and his team believe in the concept of evil. It is a concept members of the unit have clear views on.

“I reject the notion of evil completely,” says Toby, who as a former police officer says he has grappled with this question before.

“I know, coming from a law enforcement background that there are reasons why this content is popular, among a subset, but that doesn’t concern me here,” he says.

“We are using our network to fight against other networks and to eradicate this material.”

He is also clear that it hasn’t shaken his faith in the internet as a tool for good as well as evil.

“Any network, has its deviant element we are just exposed to one network and one set of deviant elements within it. I don’t extrapolate any further.”

ACMA section manager Fenton shares this perspective: “I reject the notion of evil as a choice in this life. I guess I don’t believe in the idea that people believe they are evil or pursue an evil life.” he says, explaining that many in the unit share this view.”

“We all deal with things differently and I find the human beast fascinating but consent is at the heart of it,” he says as we prepare to leave. “There are bigger forces at play but which we just choose to describe as evil.”

Editor’s note: Names of the members of the unit have been changed at the request of the ACMA.

Postscript: Today 65 Australians have been arrested accused of downloading child abuse material from a Canadian website.

The ACMA has today issued a statement saying:

The ACMA congratulates the Australian Federal Police, Canadian law enforcement, and our Canadian counterpart for reporting online child sexual abuse material, Cybertip.

This operation highlights the imperative for, and effectiveness of, international co-operation in dealing with this kind of child exploitation.

Australian citizens can make a difference by reporting online child sexual abuse material to the ACMA Hotline (reports can be made anonymously): www.acma.gov.au/hotline.

If you believe a child is in immediate danger, please contact the police via emergency services on 000.

Or if you would prefer not to provide your details, you can report anonymously to Crime Stoppers by calling the toll free number 1800 333 000.

Encore Issue 38This feature appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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