Disconnecting Child Pornography on the Internet: Barriers and Policy Considerations

By Loftus, Rebecca Ayers | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Disconnecting Child Pornography on the Internet: Barriers and Policy Considerations


Loftus, Rebecca Ayers, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

The Internet has opened a virtual Pandora's box of sexually explicit images, including child pornography. New and improved technologies such as digital cameras and editing software have made it easier to produce and distribute child pornography (Meier, 1999; Ong, 2005; Schell et al, 2007). And while there is disagreement as to the utility and legality of sexually explicit images of adults, most would agree that there is no acceptable argument in favor of legalizing depictions of children forced to engage in sexual activity or poses.

Child pornography can be seen as a higher degree of crime than simple child sexual abuse in that the sexual abuse is chronicled by photographs or videotape, for the perpetrator or whomever he/she chooses to view again and again. In this, the images are a permanent record of the child's abuse (New York v. Ferber, 1982; Medaris and Girouard, 2002). Yet, the harm in child pornography is not limited to the inherent injury to its victims. Indeed, the harm can be extended to how the material is used by sexual predators, who may show sexually explicit photos of children to potential victims in an effort to break down barriers and desensitize them to sexual activity (Adler, 2001; Medaris and Girouard, 2002; Ong, 2005).

What constitutes "child pornography" is difficult to articulate given the vagaries of the law. In New York v. Ferber, the US Supreme Court established that child pornography is not protected under the First Amendment and that it should be prohibited because of the harm sustained by victims during its production (1982) as well as the serious long-term consequences for victims' self-esteem (Ong, 2005). In the wake of NY v. Ferber, the US Congress enacted the 1984 Child Protection Act, which defined child pornography in very broad terms (Adler, 2001). Another Supreme Court ruling allowed states to prohibit depictions of child nudity if there was "graphic focus on the genitals" (Osborne v. Ohio, 1990), thereby making possession of child pornography illegal (Adler, 2001).

Current US statute defines child pornography as "a visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct" (18 U.S.C. 2256 [8]). On a global level, though, definitions vary from region to region, country to country. Erotica, degrading pornography, violent pornography--there is no consensus on key terms relating to this area (Fisher and Barak, 2001). What is considered illegal material in one country may be legal in others (Burke et al, 2002). Moreover, statues have to be written very carefully because if they are too broad and far-reaching, they can be struck down as infringements on citizens' rights (Schell et al, 2007). Akdeniz warns that regulations intended to protect children should not include categorical prohibitions against Internet use to distribute material in areas where the material is readily available to adults in other forms (2001). Some have opposed Internet regulation by the government arguing that that it should be self-regulated by site owners, parents, and international cooperation (Cassanova et al, 2000).

Definitional issues also include what constitutes a child and what constitutes pornography (Burke et al, 2002; Kleinhans, 2004; Krone, 2004; Jewkes and Andrews, 2005; Oswell, 2006). In the US, the minimum legal age for sexual activity can range from 14 to 18 (Kleinhans, 2004). As well, the age of majority varies from one country to another, and different countries have different standards as to what constitutes obscenity or pornography (Cassanova, 2000; Kleinhans, 2004; Ong, 2005; Oswell, 2006). For example, while the US considers computer generated sexually explicit images of children legal, they are illegal in the UK (Kleinhans, 2004; Oswell, 2006), Hong Kong (Ong, 2005), and Canada (Bailey, 2007). Further, not all countries prohibit sexually explicit images of children (Cassanova, 2000). Moreover, cultural mores may preclude an open discussion of issues such as sexual abuse, sex, and pornography, which may delay passage of legislation banning child pornography (Ong, 2005).

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