Attempts to learn the identities of the people behind PlayToy suggested many possible locations. Payments through Western Union were processed through Ukraine. An administrative e-mail address suggested the company was based in Russia. Using a commercial software program, The Times traced messages sent by the PlayToy sites back to servers in Germany and obtained what is known as the Internet protocol address of that online host.
An examination of the registration documents for the sites' names led to a company that is essentially a front, permitting its name to be used as the registrant by people who wish to remain anonymous.
The Times then obtained business records about the site prepared by someone involved in its operation.
If true, the records show the name, address, telephone number and other personal information of a man in Florida who is involved in running the site. An e-mail address listed in the records was traced to postings that appeared in pedophile conversation sites, including comments praising child pornography and images of young girls in thongs. Because of the possibility of identity theft, The Times has elected not to publish the name of that man or of associates who also appear to be involved in the business.
The Florida man did not return a voice mail message left on his cellphone or respond to an e-mail message.
Still, even if the operators of PlayToy are positively identified and compelled to shut their sites, the growing business of model sites would probably continue to thrive. PlayToy's many subscribers, a large number of whom identify themselves on the site as living in America, could simply drift over to other model sites, all offering similar fare.
There, on each of those hundreds of competing sites, the subscribers will find at least one other little girl who, every few days or so, is dressed in panties or thongs, placed in a bathtub or posed on a bed, while a nearby adult snaps pictures for the delight of a paying audience of thousands.
A New York Times investigation last year disclosed a new frontier in child pornography, in which minors used computer video Webcams to perform on the Internet in exchange for gifts and money. That article, published in December, resulted in a government crackdown, including arrests and the shutdown of major Webcam pornography sites.
The Times's investigation opened a window into an online subculture of pedophiles. This two-part series is a further look into that world and the businesses that have developed to serve it.
Covering this story raised legal issues. United States law makes it a crime to purchase, download or view child pornography, unless the images are promptly reported to authorities and no images are copied or retained. The Times complied with the law, disclosing what it found to appropriate authorities.
Read the second part of this investigation: From Their Own Online World, Pedophiles Extend Their Reach