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Apart from "terrorist," there may be no more terrible label in the USA than "sex offender," and the category of "child predator" is probably a close third. Julian Sher is a journalist working in Canada and the USA, and he has written what is surprisingly one of the few books on the police search for child pornographers. His main focus is on adults who sexually abuse children, make images or videos of what they do, and then make them available on the Internet. He also discusses the search for people who download child pornography and have large collections. It is a well written book that traces the history of major investigations from 1995 to 2007. He starts with the FBI Innocent Images initiative, the international Operation Cathedral, the international Operations Landslide/Ore/Avalanche, the US Customs Operation Mango, the closing down of the Regpay business, the multi-agency Operation Hamlet, the Endangered Child Alert Program, and Project Wickerman.
If you do a Google News Search for "child pornography," one striking aspect of the result is how many people are being charged with possessing or distributing it. Sher confirms that the people (mostly men) who use download it and share it come from all walks of life. From Sher's description, it is less clear that there is similar diversity in the people who exploit and abuse children to make these images, because he does not tell us much about the people who are convicted of doing this. The focus is squarely on the police and other law-enforcers and how they go about tracking down offenders. So the book is about the challenges of using computers and traditional detective work to put together clues and find criminals. Some of the work consists in simply looking at the images and trying to identify where they were made and who is in them, and then finding those people. At other times it involves technical details about computers and tracking people down through electronic clues. Some projects involved working out how websites were getting people to give their credit card information in order to get access to child pornography, and hiding the trail so that it was hard to prove that they were gaining financially from selling the images. Much of this work had to be international, and so required communication and cooperation between agencies that were not used to such collaboration. Sher explains how the early work of police was quite rudimentary, and how they have become more sophisticated with time. Yet it is also clear that the criminals are also becoming more sophisticated, so the project of ending child exploitation is nowhere near coming to a close.
Sher highlights several themes. First, the kind of exploitation he is talking about is serious. He starts off the book with a six year old girl who is kept in a cage and is who is used for sadistic sex. While he never goes into graphic detail about the sex acts depicted in the pornography, it is clear that he is not talking about pictures from nudist beaches or teenagers videoing themselves fooling around. The acts depicted in this child pornography are damaging and abusive. Second, he says the trend has been for the children involved in this pornography to be younger with each passing year. Now it is not unusual for the images to involve babies who cannot talk, because then there is less danger of their sexual abuse being discovered. Third, the collections of those who collect pornography get larger and larger. Now people have large hard drives filled with images, while in earlier years, their collections were just a few hundred images. Fifth, there is great variation in the legal punishments for different offenses, from country to country and from state to state. The punishments tend to be most severe in the USA, and Sher gives the impression that he thinks that long prison sentences are appropriate. Sixth, there is very little help available to those who are tempted to acquire child pornography, and Sher explicitly says that they should be able to get help.
When looking over the Google news results, one finds a variety of cases. A man in Philadelphia was held on $750,000 bail for viewing and downloading photographs of girls engaged in sexual acts. An Idaho man faces at least five years in jail for possessing thousands of images of child pornography. A New Jersey high school student was arrested for possessing files of children engaged in prohibited sexual acts, and his bail was put at $50,000. An Illinois man received a 66-month sentence for possessing 6600 files of child pornography, including prepubescent minors and sadistic sexual acts. A 39-year-old Tennessee man was arrested for chatting online with a police officer he thought was a 14-year-old girl, arranging to meet with her, and planning to make child pornography. A Chicago elementary school bus driver was arrested of possessing and distributing child pornography; police found two compact discs and three hard drives containing material.
One difficult question is how to compare the severity of crimes. In the same week, a California man accused of attempted murder, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon against a peace officer in connection with a home invasion had his bail set at $600,000. Two North Carolina teens were sentenced for three to five years for armed robbery of a pizza delivery driver. Two identical twins from Pennsylvania were both sentenced to seven and nine years to state prison for stealing OxyContin from pharmacies. We can ask whether these punishments are comparably severe as those for possessing and distributing child pornography, but it is an almost impossible question in the absence of some method of comparison.
It is clear that offenders in other countries get quite different punishments. In the UK in January 1988, a man convicted of possessing child pornography was placed on the sex offenders register and given 180 hours community service. A 30-year-old man was convicted of repeatedly assaulting two 14-year-old girls, and was jailed for four-and-a-half years. In 2006, a man who possessed thousands of files of children, some including sex with adults, which he himself made or permitted to be made, was jailed for 32 months. These sentences are dramatically less than in the USA. Yet the UK seems to have no worse problem with child pornography than the USA. Sher notices this sort of discrepancy, but he does not say much about it.
Sher also says nothing much about the difficulty concerning defining child pornography, and distinguishing different levels of crime. In the last few years, it has become quite common for teens "sexting" each other -- sending nude pictures of themselves to others by mobile phone. A Vermont 16-year-old boy was recently charged with sending indecent pictures of himself to a 14-year-old former girlfriend, and so may have distributed indecent material to a minor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail. Obviously this is a very different problem from the kind of child pornography that Sher is concerned with, yet the law is only just starting to catch up with the difference, and Sher does not say anything about sexting.
So Caught in the Web is a book that addresses a specific aspect of the battle against child pornography and child sexual abuse. Despite the difficult and sometimes upsetting subject matter, it is a relatively easy read, with portraits of some of the law enforcers involved, and recreations of the events that led to their successful arrest of criminals. Anyone interested in the category of sexual offenses, the dangers of the Internet, the pursuit of Internet crime, and the rings that create and distribute child pornography will find much in Sher's book that help them reach a better understanding.
Link: Julian Sher home page
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.