Child Porn on the Net

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Philip Jenkins, a professor of his- tory and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, has made something of a career of pointing out that the public has an exaggerated perception of various social problems. He has worked on debunking myths about such issues as synthetic drugs, serial murder, and clergy child abuse. Jenkins is a self-described libertarian, and the incentives for a libertarian to debunk such myths is evident: Public hysteria about social ills tends to fuel new legislation which further encroaches on our civil liberties.

Before Jenkins started the research that led to Beyond Tolerance, he assumed that the public’s excitability over children, sex, and the Internet was no more justified than for the other issues he had investigated. Jenkins writes:

Having spent a decade arguing that various social menaces were vastly overblown – that serial killers and

molesters did not lurk behind every tree, nor pedophile priests in every rectory – I now found myself in the disconcerting position of seeking to raise public concern about a quite authentic problem that has been neglected. (p. 9)

This book is, in part, Jenkins’ attempt to rectify that neglect. It also provides a highly readable analysis of a fascinating group in society: The maligned subculture. of those who trade child porn on the Internet.

It is perhaps best to start by pointing out what Jenkins is not attacking.

He has no problem with adult porn on the Internet; in fact he suggests that adult porn can be beneficial and liberating. He is not concerned about adults attempting to seduce children on-line, nor is he concerned about children gaining electronic access to pornographic materials. Jenkins believes that the moral panic about these issues involving children has obscured what is the important issue, which is the flourishing trade of pornographic images involving children on the Internet.

Jenkins provides a detailed yet engaging account of how that trade works. Though he hasn’t done it himself, Jenkins knows how to access free child porn images with minimal risk of being caught. The method is to utilize both sophisticated Internet technology and the fact that countries like Japan, Russia, and the South Pacific states of Nauru and Tonga are less strict about child porn than, for example, the U.S. Web-based bulletin boards operating out of servers in these countries. The “Maestro” bulletin board is one of the most popular; “Maestro” is a pseudonym because Jenkins does not want his book to be a manual for Internet pedophiles. On the bulletin board, people post URLs of sites which contain child porn images. These sites exist on standard web-hosting servers, such as Yahoo’s egroups.com. Often hundreds of pictures in a series are posted. The trick is that these sites on which these pictures are posted are temporary, generally staying up no longer than a few hours. Moreover, the files posted on the sites are generally encoded, unviewable by anyone lacking the requisite password. Only after the site is removed is the password posted on the bulletin board. A person downloading files from the site can use “a false flag” address which hides the uniquely identifying IP address of his’ computer. Even if the police were. to get the logs of the server, they would not be able to identify the true IP addresses of the visitors.

People do get arrested for trading child porn online and the penalties in countries like the United. States are severe., Nevertheless, the proportion of people who get caught is’ minuscule, primarily because law enforcers lack the .technical expertise, required in tracking down the perpetrators, the diplomatic skill required. in dealing with the law enforcement agencies of the various involved, and with the sheer, number of participants in the Internet child porn .trade. (Jenkins suggests that “tens of thousands” is a modest estimate.)

But while the government has failed to stem on-lin.e child. porn, vigilante groups have had considerable success. Anti-porn, activists have posted messages on the. bulletin boards encouraging participants to go to sites

The government has failed to stem online child porn, but vigilante groups have had considerable success.

 

which are booby-trapped with viruses. They also have electronically attacked the bulletin. boards themselves, shut-

.ting them down at least temporarily. The reasons these vigilante groups are more successful are that they are willing to use illegal means, they have more economic resources than police agencies, and in general have more technological expertise. While Jenkins clearly is impressed by the success of these vigilante groups, he does offer words of caution: If we accept’ extra-legal intervention in the realm of child porn, where else might we find it occurring? Jenkins worries that people will try to take down any site with views they’. find offensive, and as a result the Internet would no longer be effective as a medium for discussion and controversy.

Jenkins’ exploration of the personalities of the people who trade child porn is engrossing. He presents what
in many ways is a typical subculture: shared interest results in feelings of unity and solidarity. Many participants
in the subculture have a “collector fetish” – their images are intricately organized and cataloged, and they are
always on the lookout for pictures to fill in gaps in series they collect. The danger of being caught excites them,
and lends an aura of drama to their activity.

These prosaic and entertaining discussions of the subculture lead the reader to sometimes forget that child porn is highly illegal for a reason, that children are often molested in the course of producing it. Some collectors of child porn recognize that their actions are morally reprehensible:

To do what we do requires that some four year old ends up sucking her dad’s dick and gets the pics sent to newsrooms for our pleasure . . . society’s reluctance to allow freedom for that to happen does not surprise or upset me one bit. (139)

Generally, though, participants in the discussion on the bulletin boards

These prosaic and entertain- ing discussions of the subculture lead the reader to some- times forget that child porn is highly illegal for a reason, that children are often molested in the course of producing it.

 

“assert a libertarian value system,” according to Jenkins (121). Here is a typical example of the libertarian approach:

This board is for people who like and appreciate the human body. We also like thrills we get at looking at little boys and girls in their birthday suits. We have a freedom of choice and speech on this board which is rare in this day and age. We also don’t impose or force our views on others on this board. (122)

As a libertarian, I find it instructive to see how easily libertarian rhetoric can be misused to support immoral ends. I suspect that one claim that Jenkins makes may be false. He says that, while sexual images of children are illegal in the U.S., written stories describing sexual acts involving children are protected by the First Amendment. But the situation is less clear after the July 2001 prosecution of Brian Dalton in Columbus, Ohio, for child porn fantasies he had written in his diary. In order to ensure reduced jail time, Dalton plead guilty to the charge of pandering obscenity involving a minor. Even though Dalton had no intention of distributing his diary, he created it, and that was enough to justify the pandering charge. As repugnant as collectors of child porn are, I am more offended by the government agents who that that child porn justified their acting like Big Brother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.