Internet service providers (ISPs) have charged child sex abuse investigators over 171,000 for access to data since 2006.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) told the BBC following a freedom of information request that since April of 2006 it had made 9,400 requests for user information, at a total cost of 171,505.99.
In an interview with the BBC, the CEOP centre's chief executive Jim Gamble said the body expected to pay as much as 100,000 to ISPs to get the information they needed to find children who were being abused and the criminals hurting them. "That could have put a number of specialists to work here doing the right thing, making the environment safer, making it even more commercially viable," he said, later adding that figure could fund two extra investigators.
Affiliated with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the CEOP centre uses information from ISPs to track online predators, essentially to put a name and location to IP addresses. Some ISPs charge to supply that data, while others do not.
Gamble said companies clearly have the right to cost recovery, and said he does not think a change to the law is necessary. "We don't need new legislation, we need new thinking. We need sensible thinking," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to say that I don't believe that ISPs should give us everything for free, of course not."
But he added that any firm which claims it can't afford to provide such data in support of police protecting children "simply can't afford to do business".
Gamble compared CEOP's work to transport police, who are allowed to travel free on trains. "They won't have to buy a ticket to get on the train and you compare the train system to the online network; they won't pay or have to cajole or convince the conductor to give them the information about the threatening person who's in the carriage down the back," he said.
"So what we need to do is get the whole of the online industry because many of them already provide this info to us for free to get the whole industry to behave more reasonably on this particular issue."
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