Internet porn and objectionable material fly freely in cyberspace. GRAHAM REID looks at the people who monitor and prosecute the traders.

John Peacock taps on the keyboard and text scrolls on his screen. He's entered an internet chat room. This, one of between 40 and 60 he regularly monitors, is different from others. And very twisted.

This is a channel in which individuals - almost exclusively men - trade child pornography, or what Peacock and his colleagues in the Department of Internal Affairs politely call "objectionable material".

"We're not interested in borderline stuff," says Steve O'Brien, manager of the department's censorship compliance unit and an inspector in the Wellington office. "We're after those who obviously go after objectionable material. If you go into a channel called 'babyrape' ... "

O'Brien, a former policeman and head of the unit, which has two inspectors each in offices in the capital, Auckland and Christchurch, notes that the men trawling for images can be quite specific in what they want. And that makes prosecutions under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 unequivocal.

"Some of these people are going into channels looking at young boys for example, and they'll say '4 to 8 years'. That's pretty clear.

"Naturally we go after the higher form of offender, the person who trades is who we're after."

Cyberspace may be a virtual world, but it's also disturbingly real. The names used - let alone the blunt subdirectories of favourites ("only preteens") - only hint at this netherworld.

The descriptions on the channel Peacock is monitoring on this particular day - the last Friday before Christmas when many are buying presents for their children - include "preteenboysex", "preteenrapesex" and "dadanddaughtersex". And it gets worse.

"Some of the torture pics can be horrific," says O'Brien. "There was one where they put a stake through a child. It could have been a war picture."

O'Brien's office is stacked with seized computers the unit is assessing for objectionable material. Christmas might be only days away but they will work through the holiday period. Traders will assume they won't and so go on-line to swap images. O'Brien took grim satisfaction from having nailed "a couple of real beauties" during the holiday season.

When they identify an overseas trader they inform Interpol or the local Customs or police with whom they have established good information swapping lines.

Oddly enough, money seldom changes hands in this weird world. Newcomers are welcomed, anonymity is essential and on-line conversation, such as it is, is limited. Variations on "Whaddya want?"and "Whaddya got?" seems the sum total of friendly banter. After that it's down to the dirty business of swapping pictures.

Monitoring chat channels is fairly simple. Inspectors enter a channel, wait for someone to strike up a "conversation" and see what is offered. If a New Zealander on-line sends them objectionable images the unit makes written application for a search warrant through the district court, then - accompanied by someone from one of the police's sexual abuse teams "because there is always a possibility of actual physical offending" - they knock on the door.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of those who hear the door knock are under 18 (O'Brien says they haven't seen such individuals reoffend, yet) "and with youth offenders we can be there for hours sitting with parents and the child. We don't want them to be a statistic".

And he has no doubt the unit has been the cause of many marriage break-ups. And suicides. "No one likes to see someone so distraught they will take their own life. In one case we had our doubts about the person and actively encouraged him to seek medical assistance but later found he had taken his own life."

The unit gets excellent cooperation from internet service providers in identifying users' home addresses.

"The person who goes to a website, downloads and views has technically committed an offence, but not one we normally pursue with vigour. We're after the ones who are actively trading."

O'Brien says they act on a first trading offence because in the anonymous cyberworld an individual may have gathered thousands of images under a number of aliases.

"We normally seize the computer unless we can assess it on site. Inspectors have a certain amount of discretion. If he's got 10,000 R18 Penthouse-type pictures and among that there are two which would be borderline we would look to a more lenient approach than if he had 10,000 child pornographic images and two R18s."

The censorship compliance unit might be small but it has caught 422 New Zealanders with 92 going through the courts. Because of the specific nature of what they were collecting, all have been prosecuted. Between 20 and 30 other cases are pending. Most often the court appearance results in periodic detention or a jail sentence, and/or a substantial fine, and forfeiture of the images and possibly the computer.

The unit - with a budget of $800,000 last year - grew out of the department's gaming and censorship roles. Inspectors with computer experience were taken into the newly established censorship compliance units, which work closely with police crime labs and belong to overseas high-tech internet discussion groups.

It is small, with well-trained and experienced staff. "I like the idea of a small dedicated unit," says O'Brien, "and we are catching the main offenders. The last thing we would want is for people to believe the problem is huge. It's not, and New Zealand is coping quite well. But remember, this hasn't been going on long and really only took off from 1996.

"I can't quantify whether it's growing, but you are seeing new material so there's a desire for it. It's supply and demand, and there's a demand to sexually exploit and abuse children."

Given the nature of what such individuals engage in, how does O'Brien feel about it?

"You mean, do I feel great they've gone?" he asks, then goes silent. "I'd still say I still feel distraught that they would go to that length. I see them as dysfunctional and mentally sick and they need help."

But some are beyond help, he says, citing individuals who have reoffended by going back on to the same chat channel they were caught on. They simply cannot help themselves.

Offenders come from all walks of life, but O'Brien says there are some common elements: "A number have been teachers and from the areas where they put themselves close to children, like a scoutmaster - which is a shame because there's so many decent scoutmasters.

"And some of the searches we execute can be pretty disgusting. We call them the double-glove operations, because you come across so much filth, literally. But these same people will keep their computers meticulous."

Digital cameras have made home-porn possible and traders will slice a moving image into stills. For the individual it becomes a collect-the-series activity. And some are on chat channels for up to 18 hours at a stretch trading images.

While conceding it is his personal opinion, Dr Rees Tapsell, a consulting forensic psychiatrist, confirms the wide belief that those who have abnormal sexual interests across a range of practices tend to exhibit compulsive and obsessive behaviour.

"I can't back this up with any literature, but it would seem one of the things that is additionally exciting about the whole [internet] exercise is the possibility of secrecy, and that you can indulge yourself in new images - and you might see 1500 new images."

Tapsell also notes one of the difficulties in discussing the internet is that it is a fairly new phenomenon and highly accessible. And that ease of access may feed that behaviour.

Such matters will be one of the subjects of an invitation-only conference at the University of Auckland from February 10. Organised as a joint initiative by the university and the Internet Safety Group with assistance from the police, Netsafe: Society, Safety and the Internet will look at a broad range of issues including safety in the home, school and workplace, plus a consideration of the legal, ethical and cultural issues surrounding internet use. Keynote speakers include experts from the United States and Australia.

John Peacock will be among the speakers. Like his colleagues, Peacock - aged 32 and with a partner - has a consultant psychologist available. About once a month inspectors, either individually or in a group, discuss their work with her.

But Peacock also notes they spend only a very small part of their time looking at or for the images: "It takes only three or four seconds to know if a picture is objectionable or not.

"I'll discuss with my partner the job I've done but I certainly don't take home to her the very graphic and gory details.

"We're all under a psychological supervision programme, says O'Brien, "and try to vary duties as much as possible. We're inspectors of publications so we do magazines and videos and sometimes it is voluntary compliance, so you're meeting really decent people and in some ways helping them enhance their businesses."

Even so, some things must still shock.

"Absolutely," says Peacock. "If someone wasn't horrified that would be a worry."

"If you ever got immune," says O'Brien, "you shouldn't be here. The first time we saw the baby rape type pictures you had to wonder what had gone wrong with people who could do that.

"The majority of society would be abhorred by these things and this job is not for everyone. But you get satisfaction out of catching these people."