How porn slipped the Net

Last week 40 people were arrested as part of an international crackdown on child pornography. Charles Arthur examines the rise of child sex on the Internet
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Finding pornography on the Internet requires only basic knowledge. Playboy magazine, for example, has its own computer attached to the network's World Wide Web, which can send both text and pictures to your screen. At the Internet address http://www.playboy.com you will find the usual soft-porn pictures of cheesily smiling women: it is said to be one of the most-visited "places" in cyberspace.

But to explore the weirder fringes, you have to go to the newsgroups - the 16,000-odd discussion areas devoted to a myriad of topics. There you will find the sex-oriented ones: such as alt.sex.bondage, alt.sex.bestiality, alt.sex.pictures.female.There are also pictures, encoded into jumbled text. With the right software (available for free over the network), you can turn the jumble back into pictures.

Further on are more sinister and explicit groups, such as alt.sex.weird, alt.sex.children and alt.sex.intergen (the intergen stands for intergenerational, that is between adults and children). How explicit? In one you might find a picture of an apparently prepubescent girl masturbating with a vibrator; in another an American's self-portrait of himself masturbating; in yet another, a woman apparently eating faeces. Why "apparently"? Because computer technology can fake such things, creating an electronic montage of an event that never took place

The existence of such pictures, which (in the nature of newsgroups) are copied from computer to computer across the network, has sparked fierce debate all over the world. The US Senate has passed a piece of legislation called the Communications Decency Act, proposed by Senator Jim Exon, which would make the operators of computers connected to the Internet responsible for monitoring the content of messages passing through their system. In Singapore, the government has declared that it will prosecute any citizen who uses the Internet for libel, fraud or obscenity. In Britain, an interdepartmental governmental team is trying to frame laws to control the passage of data that breaks existing laws - principally libel, obscenity and copyright.

Ranged against them are the users, and the technology, of the network itself. When Senator Exon's proposed law (which has still to be debated by the House of Representatives, where it is likely to fail) was tabled this year, it provoked an outcry on the Net. An opposing electronic petition appeared within days; a month later it had been "signed" by 121,284 Internet users, 108,974 of them inside the US. They protested that the proposals were unfair in principle and unworkable in practice. The amount of data passing across the network is equivalent to thousands of copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica every day. No person, no computer, could ever monitor it all.

"Any effort by a geographically based authority to regulate access to this new territory of cyberspace can be seen as an impingement not only on the right to 'speech' but also on the right to assemble," says David Johnson, of the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a pressure group which aims to extend and protect civil liberties in electronic media.

That attitude is typical: the Internet's origins lie in the US, which has defined its ethos. The mindset of the average Internet user is an equal mix of laissez-faire and a version of the Constitution's First Amendment - "the freedom of the press shall not be abridged" - which treats the network as a form of "press". Users usually put it more bluntly: if you don't want to see pornography, they argue, don't go looking for it.

Added to this is the fact that there are no national boundaries. But the rights of "assembly" in cyberspace undoubtedly have a dark side. In June, two American children were found far from home, apparently lured away by "friends" made through computer services. Tara Noble, aged 13, was found last Sunday in Hollywood after disappearing two weeks ago from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. She had arranged to meet a friend called "George" through a computer service called America Online. Daniel Montgomery, from Washington DC, was found at San Francisco airport after being sent the airfare by a man calling himself "Damien Starr".

Earlier this month, 40 people were arrested in a co-ordinated operation by police in five countries, who believe they have cracked an Internet child pornography ring. The people arrested appear to have been passing digitised pictures - some of the children as young as three years old - between themselves by e-mail. In a separate case, two men are awaiting a trial date in Birmingham Crown Court, charged with offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Obscene Publications Act 1959, following a raid earlier this year by the police on the metallurgy department at Birmingham University.

Detective Chief Inspector Jim Reynolds is head of New Scotland Yard's newly named Paedophile and Child Pornography Unit. He has a staff of 15. It is impossible, he observes, to cite any statistics about the amount of such material on the Internet. But the amount that his unit is finding is growing. "We're seeing things now that five years ago we only saw in adult porn. The level of it seems to be getting worse."

Pornographic pictures tend to reach the network by one of two routes. A picture can be scanned into a computer in a country where such images are legal, and sent over the network (this is the case for the vast majority). Or the sender disguises his or her identity by routing the scanned picture through an "anonymous remailer", a computer which strips off any details about the senders, such as their e-mail address.

A further complication is that child pornography does not always depict children. DCI Reynolds recalls a case from a couple of years ago: "We were prosecuting a man for having child pornography pictures on his home computer. The defence argued it wasn't a photo because he had scanned in a picture of an adult and then used software to put a child's head on it, reduced the breasts, and digitally removed her wristwatch and pubic hair."

The defence was successful. But last year's Criminal Justice Act closed that loophole: in Britain it is now an offence knowingly to store or distribute "pseudo-pictures" of children in pornographic poses on a computer or computer network. The US is moving, slowly, to close the same loophole.

In the case of anonymous remailers, police have to contact the operators of the remailers, who are often unwilling to give up the records revealing the real identities of the senders of messages. Remailers are also comparatively easy to set up; by siting one in a country where child pornography is legal, or the law does not cover its computer form, the process will continue. Nor is it effective to prevent people sending data directly to a remailer. The messages could be sent automatically via an intermediate system, or manually by a co-conspirator in another country, to the remailer. The technology wins again.

So why not prevent the companies that offer access to the Internet - known as "Internet service providers" (ISPs) - from carrying newsgroups with offensive pictures? And why don't the companies cut out those newsgroups voluntarily?

Bill Thompson, a director of Cambridge-based Pipex, whose news server feeds on to most of Europe, says that though there is no precedent in law, "there is a belief, among ISPs, that if we don't examine the content, then legally we can't be touched. But if we were to say that, on the basis of the name alone, we're not going to take this group and this group, then the lawyers can say that we are implying that we know what's in those groups." The ISPs would thus be liable for everything on their system - meaning someone at Pipex would have to trawl through every message in every newsgroup in any European country. The system would shudder to a halt.

Besides, as Steve Kennedy, business development manager for Demon Internet Services, based in London, points out, if one newsgroup is killed, the material will just pop up in another.

In the US, the situation has been muddied by a recent ruling against Prodigy, a large online service which provides its own bulletin boards besides access to the Internet. It was declared a publisher by a New York judge in a recent libel case; because unlike an ISP, or other online providers such as CompuServe, Prodigy staff read and edit messages from its users before they appear on the company's own bulletin board. CompuServe was last year declared to not be a publisher in a US case because it only edits or removes messages after they have appeared.

"If a service provider knew it was providing a service which was illegal, then it would be subject to the laws of the land," DCI Reynolds says. "But you have to prove intent - that is, knowledge of the offence."

In Britain, Alastair Kelman, a barrister who specialises in computer- related cases, suggests that governments should draw up an international convention so that "anything published on the Internet is subject to worldwide legislation". This has worked, he points out, in the case of terrorism, with most countries having extradition treaties.

While the debate rages on, parents keen to let their children benefit from the network while avoiding its darker recesses could buy software, such as a package called "SurfWatch" from SurfWatch Inc. in Los Altos, California, which prevents them accessing newsgroups or sites that are "known" to have pornographic pictures. But as children become familiar with the technology, the possibility remains that they will find ways around it.

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