The operation, code-named Operation Laminar and spanning 20 countries, has targeted 55 key suspects in the worldwide distribution of child sexual abuse pictures. Some were involved in the actual sexual abuse of the children depicted.
At least 12 abused children have been identified and removed from harm including one in New Zealand who is now in the custody of Child Youth and Family.
In October 2010 Internal Affairs' Censorship Compliance Unit found significant amounts of child sexual abuse and exploitation pictures being exchanged via social network sites, including Facebook, Socialgo, and grou.ps and alerted international law enforcement agencies.
An Internal Affairs investigator intercepted the network of abuse by engaging with the top offenders on the social network sites.
What they found has shocked even seasoned investigators - hundreds and thousands of images shared through a file sharing network.
"It's captured on film. Some of those children are very young including babies," said Maarten Quivooy, General Manager of Regulatory Compliance Operations.
Most of the 55 who were arrested are in prison or facing prosecution. None from this operation are from New Zealand but five New Zealanders, playing a lesser role in the closed groups were identified during the covert investigation. They are currently facing prosecution for viewing and sharing the explicit material.
Internal Affairs says more arrests are likely.
'Top offenders in this shocking trade'
Quivooy said the department provided evidence of the illegal activities to 20 countries and worked with United States authorities and Interpol.
"This enabled those countries' law enforcement agencies to taken action against 55 people who are regarded as the top offenders in this shocking trade," he said.
Internal Affairs investigators and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identified a large number of groups on Facebook engaging in the display or distribution of objectionable child sexual material, Quivooy said.
The investigation was conducted with the support and assistance of Facebook officials, he said. Some of the individuals targeted had already been referred to law enforcement as part of Facebook's proactive efforts to ensure their platform is not used to sexually exploit children.
The Head of Interpol's Crimes Against Children unit, Mick Moran, praised New Zealand's initiative in launching the original investigation. The operation once again demonstrated the need for international co-operation.
"It is said that the internet has no boundaries, but that does not mean that laws do not apply, that people committing offences online will not be identified," Moran said.
"There is no safe environment or anonymous area for individuals who think that they can trade and publish child abuse images online, as proved once again by this operation which should serve as a warning to others - you will be caught."
Moran said: "While disrupting these networks is a significant part of the investigation, what is more important is that innocent children and in some cases babies have been rescued from physical abuse."
The 20 countries with identified targets are Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, England, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, The Netherlands, Tunisia, Turkey, United States and Venezuela.
ICE Director John Morton said Operation Laminar demonstrated that when governments team up to attack the global distribution of images of child sexual abuse the success is real.
"ICE will continue to work tirelessly with our international law enforcement partners to protect children wherever they live and to bring justice to criminals wherever they operate," he added.
Not a victimless crime
Quivooy said protecting children was a global responsibility to which the Department of Internal Affairs was committed.
"Distributing child sexual abuse images is an international crime requiring an international response," he said.
"Child sex abuse imagery is not a victimless crime as it involves real children forced into degrading acts. Trading in, or viewing these images is active offending because it involves real children often being abused both in real time and over time.
"Images of children being sexually abused, when released onto the internet, live on forever.
They haunt the children depicted, who live daily with the knowledge that countless strangers use an image of their worst experiences for their own gratification.
"No crime impacts on us as society and as parents more deeply than the abuse of innocent children by the people they should be able to trust above all others. Terms such as kiddiporn and child pornography make the physical sexual abuse of a child appear consenting."
No child is capable of consenting to sexual activity and therefore all sexual depiction of children is abuse, Quivooy said.
The case comes as no surprise to those fighting the exploitation of children.
"In New Zealand there are over 50,000 mouse clicks to access sites that have previously been identified as containing illegal child sex abuse images," said Alan Bell, Director of child protection agency ECPAT Child ALERT.
Seven years ago New Zealand was part of another international inquiry resulting in 175 prosecutions in this country alone.
"Unfortunately it is all too common and every effort must be made to eliminate the selling of children," Bell said.
Bell said some offenders claim that as long as they do not actually physically abuse the child directly they are doing no harm.
"This is a fallacy. Every time these images are viewed it increases the demand for new images and consequently more children become victims. It is a question of supply and demand," he said.