Is the boom in kiddie porn a Net effect or is 'victimless' behavior unduly punished?

Summary:The Internet was one termed a "cult machine" and that may appear to be the case with child pornography. It was almost snuffed out in the domain of mail order and adult book shops but with the Internet it is a huge, sprawling blight on society, seemingly ever-growing.

The Internet was one termed a "cult machine" and that may appear to be the case with child pornography. It was almost snuffed out in the domain of mail order and adult book shops but with the Internet it is a huge, sprawling blight on society, seemingly ever-growing. According to the Washington Post:

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline received about 4,500 reports of children being victimized it its first year, 1998. This year the center, which works closely with law enforcement officials, has collected nearly 100,000 reports, more than 75 percent for online child pornography.

Child Porn site from TV News

And it's not just sheer numbers but also the extremity, the severity of the imagery.

"You can't wrap your brain around what we're talking about here," said Bonnie S. Greenberg, a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland. "We're not talking about a 16-year-old who looks like she could be 19. We're seeing prepubescent children who are being raped, babies, toddlers being tied up."

It's not just that the Internet has fed an appetite for child pornography; it's also that the images have become a larger and larger focus for law enforcement. And some are questioning whether consumption of images without action -- or even proof that viewing kiddie porn leads people to child abuse should even be a crime.

"Sending people to prison for five or 10 or 15 years for looking at pictures is killing an ant with a sledgehammer," said Peter Greenspun, who defended Charles Rust-Tierney, the former ACLU head sentenced to seven years in prison for downloading hundreds of images. "These people are being put on sex-offender registries, they are being ostracized from the community, for looking at pictures."

Just what is the connection? The Postal Inspection Service found only a third of people convicted of kidde porn charges had also committed child abuse. But a much smaller study of inmates in North Carolina found 85% overlap between the two groups.

"There are a large group of individuals whose lives and families are absolutely being devastated because they looked at these images," said Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who runs the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. "They had absolutely no idea how severe the consequences would be and had no interest in doing anything other than viewing images."

I am really split on this: I think kiddie porn is NOT victimless, because children clearly have been victimized and the thought of people stroking to images of kids, knowing they've been victimized and not caring, is upsetting. On the other hand, the involvement of the person being prosecuted is really indirect and the consequences are so harsh. Isn't this a case of people being punished for "thinking bad thoughts"? With law enforcement focused on child porn, there might be an allure-of-forbidden-fruit going on, too. Finally, I'm not sure that the prosecutions are drying up the market; perhaps resources are better spent nailing the people who actually are harming the kids, rather than the demand-side?

There's a net addiction aspect here, too. There's no way that guy would have collected 1.5 million images in the offline world: the Net makes it possible to just keep going and going. But the mental health world ignores the syndrome and addictive behavior goes untreated, kids continue to be victimized and relatively harmless offenders are harshly punished.

Topics: Browser

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