Experts testifying before a congressional panel say the threat posed to children by sexual predators and the multi-billion dollar Internet pornography business is greater than ever. Lawmakers also heard from teenagers involved in the fight against Internet child sexual exploitation, which like the Internet itself has exploded in recent years.
In 2005, commercial child pornography on the Internet was a $20 billion business, with troubling implications for children around the world vulnerable to abuse.
At Tuesday's hearing, lawmakers heard that inadequate laws, insufficient resources, and a lack of coordination among government and law enforcement agencies have contributed to this explosion.
Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield described the scope of the problem. "With the growing use of the Internet, the number of child predators who seek to make, distribute and view images of children being sexually abused, continues to skyrocket. This is due to the anonymity, accessibility, and ease with which child predators can operate on the Internet," he said.
Statistics show that one in five children report sexual solicitations, with only one quarter of those telling parents about it.
In the United States alone, some 3.5 million images of children being sexually exploited are on the Internet at any given time, and are frequently re-distributed in the form of DVDs and videotapes:
Sharon Cooper is a physician with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina. "Child pornography on the Internet, in particular, has untold impact upon victims. The possession and distribution of these images, which are in fact, digital crime scenes, promote a need for newer and more plentiful and more graphic images," he said.
All of this is fueled by the growth of Internet chat rooms, and portals providing access to live webcam feeds of children being sexually-abused.
At the age of 13, Justin Berry became involved in what he now calls the "sick business" of Internet pornography. "This is not the story of a few bad kids whose parents paid no attention. There are hundreds of kids in the U.S. alone who are right now wrapped up in this horror. Within each of your congressional districts, I guarantee you there are children who have used their webcams to appear naked online, and I guarantee you there are also children in your district on the Internet right now being contacted and seduced by online sexual predators.
Now 19, Berry says sexual predators and pornographers using the Internet believe they have little to fear from law enforcement authorities.
The man accused of molesting Berry, Ken Gourlay, was subpoenaed and appeared before the congressional committee, but declined to answer questions citing 5th Amendment constitutional protections against self-incrimination.
Justin Berry's story was documented in a major investigative article last year by New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who describes "a losing battle" against child pornography. "The predators are sophisticated in the use of computers and talented in their manipulation of children. They count on our willingness to avert our eyes from the unpleasant, to succeed in their pursuit of illegal images of minors. And we have been far too willing to comply."
Eichenwald says a single Internet "portal" contained links to some 600 teenage webcam sites, along with advertising by major companies, including computer equipment manufacturers. "Most disturbing was that major American and international companies advertised on these marketing portals for child pornography. The advertisements appeared immediately above images used by boys and girls to market their pornography sites. Apparently these companies were attempting to win business both from customers and the teenage pornographers themselves, as they offered services to help efficiently run for pay sites," he said.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 1,500 tips are received each week by its "cybertip line" about suspected online child pornography.
Its director, Ernie Allen, says Internet service providers need to be held to legal requirements to report the use of their systems by pornographers, while credit card companies and banks need to work together. "At a minimum, what we can do is follow the money, stop the payments under existing terms of service agreement[s], and under existing law and shut these sites down. If we take away the profitability, it's going to be very difficult for them to sustain themselves," he said.
Allen says while there is no quick and easy solution, major credit card companies have agreed to cooperate with the center's efforts.
Tuesday's hearing also touched on efforts to crackdown on Internet child exploitation around the world.
Parry Aftab heads Wired Safety, an organization devoted to Internet safety and fighting child exploitation, with 11,000 volunteers in 76 countries. "We have been working very closely with the National Crime Service in the U.K. for the last seven years. Together we infiltrated some of the leading sex trafficking groups in the world, and hundreds of people have gone to jail because of our work," he said.
"A lot of teens I see are posting very explicit pictures of themselves on the Internet, and they don't realize how that can hurt them," said Shannon Sullivan, a teenager working with Wired Safety:
Some lawmakers are pushing for legislation to help U.S. law enforcement agencies improve their ability to crack down on sexual predators and Internet pornography.