Monday, January 27, 2003

Lauren Weinstein

Online kid porn a tricky problem

The recent arrests of The Who's Pete Townshend and Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) on child pornography charges spotlight complex issues in which the Internet is increasingly a major player.

The overwhelmingly vast majority of us consider child porn utterly disgusting. But as uncomfortable as it may make us, it's wise for us in an Internet world to consider carefully whether everyone who has contact with such materials should be painted with the same broad brush.

Producers and distributors of child pornography, and other child abusers, should be subject to the harshest of penalties. That's an easy call.

The situation is much cloudier when it comes to punishing people who are only in possession of (or have simply viewed) child porn as defined under current law, especially in the case of first-time offenders.

Before the advent of the Internet, only people seriously driven to obtain these disreputable materials were likely to do so. They typically had to meet with shady characters in back alleys or participate in secretive, underground photo-mailing clubs.

The Internet changed everything. It's been a dream come true for the distributors of such garbage and for predators who could target children through chat rooms and similar venues.

Yet the Net has also made it possible for individuals who would never have come into contact with child porn in a non-Internet world to be sucked in with only a few mouse clicks.

The ability for mildly curious or bull-headedly thoughtless Internet users to easily view this material online represents a qualitative change in the picture.

Most people don't realize that child porn is one of the few forms of data available on the Internet that can turn you into an instant criminal through the simple act of viewing particular websites in your own home — even just one time.

So people with no criminal background and no accusations of improper contact with children are being led off in handcuffs in increasing numbers, facing serious criminal charges for Web browsing. In some cases, they also face the specter of being hounded as registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives, thanks to the Internet.

Lost in this circus is a serious debate about proportionality, and a recognition that humans are, after all, imperfect animals subject to a range of failings, particularly when technology that's enticing enters the mix.

The witch hunts that have ballooned beyond legitimate child pornography investigations are also part of the problem.

Authorities have interrogated mothers after innocent naked photos of their toddlers in bathtubs were reported by film processors. Retroactive criminalization of very old photographs (reportedly a key element in Reubens ' case) and continued attempts to criminalize even artificially created images that didn't involve actual children add explosives to the minefield.

Research isn't viewed as an excuse. Townshend claimed that his access to child porn sites was to further work on his autobiography relating to his own abuse as a child. The irony that The Who's classic rock opera Tommy revolves around an abused boy has not been lost on observers.

Whether or not one chooses to believe Townshend, the fact remains that laudable efforts to stamp out the scourge of child abuse, combined with the trivial ease of access to child pornography online, have created a situation in which the punishment for an entire class of first-offense child-porn viewers no longer fits the crime.

Protecting children from genuine abuse should be one of societies' top priorities, but we shouldn't be swatting flies with nuclear bombs.

The criminals who prey on our children must be isolated and punished severely. On the other hand, first-time Internet offenders whose only crime is being seduced or suckered into viewing child porn on the Web — which makes it so very easy — should be subject to significantly less harsh and less permanently punitive consequences.

Simple fairness and justice demand no less.

Lauren Weinstein has been involved with the Internet for decades, beginning with ARPANET. He is the co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, the creator and moderator of the Privacy Forum and an outspoken commentator on technology and society.

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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