LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--It can look like any other e-mail, with an invitation to click on a Web site, often with a nonsensical name.
This week there's been one going around with the subject line: "eb1 LS- L 0 LITA NOW is out !!! with 4 in1 RTF."
For a day or two, the link inside this e-mail, touting something like "little Lolitas" or "young cuties," will direct your browser to a Web page with more than 15 ads for sites that have shocking photos of naked young girls. But two days later the link will probably go dead.
That's how child-porn sites work. They're up for a short period, but then move off to new domain names and Web addresses to evade detection from authorities. The unsuspecting recipient can click open explicit images depicting acts of oral sex, anal sex, vaginal penetration, bondage, rape or torture.
"The ease and anonymity of using home computers has revolutionized accessibility as well as the production and distribution of child pornography," says Ernie Allen. "The fact that child pornography can be purchased using a credit card is causing a global problem and an immeasurable impact on the sexual exploitation of children."
Allen is CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Alexandria, Va., which operates a tip line to report child porn by telephone or e-mail. In 2001 the group received 21,603 tips about child porn Web sites. Three years later, that figure zoomed to 106,176.
While the number of child-porn Web sites operating at any one time is a moving target, Allen figures there are at least 100,000 sites currently up and running, based on the number of reports the tip line brings in.
"Almost half of the cases we have caught are children that are being victimized by their parents, often for revenue," says Allen. "Parents sexually abuse their children and put it up on the Web and sell the pictures." Allen also says that here in the United States older children, young teens for example, have been persuaded by relatives and adults they know to pose for porn for money.
$3 Billion in Annual Sales
Allen says that global sales of illegal pornography that exploits children--including those under 4 years old--are about $3 billion a year.
He says many of those sales are inside the United States and the bulk is being spent on pictures of pre-pubescent U.S. girls sold mainly to U.S. consumers.
Joan Irvine is executive director of the Los Angeles-based Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection, the adult-porn industry's watch dog on child porn.
Since the discovery of a child-porn image on an adult porn site can shut down a very lucrative business, adult pornographers--who operate legally on the Web--are trying to help police it through Irvine's organization. "Protecting your business by protecting children," is the motto of the group, which has received 150,000 reports of child porn over the past two years.
"The bulk of the porn that is reported to us involves young girls ranging in ages from 8 to 12," says Irvine. "While there is a growing number of child porn sites featuring boys, the preponderance of child porn is of prepubescent young girls. Some of it is hard core and I've been horrified to see pictures of girls as young as 2 or 3."
Irvine says that most of the people who report to her organization have been viewing adult pornography and come upon child porn on adult sites. "The general public and adult-site Webmasters feel more comfortable reporting sites to the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection than to governmental agencies," she says. "They often don't want the government to know that they have been viewing porn."
When Irvine's group receives a tip it reviews the questionable material and investigates the sites, trying to find where it is hosted. It then reports the sites to the local FBI or the Department of Justice as well as the hosting company.
Federal Crime in U.S.
Child pornography is defined as the visual image of infants, toddlers and children under age 18 in sexual poses or in explicit sexual activity. The possession or distribution of such material is a federal crime in the United States, punishable by prison sentences.
Online child porn is nonetheless proliferating, with about 20 percent of all Internet pornography involving children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In 2001, arrests in the United States for possession of child porn showed a lot of material involving very young children, according to Allen's organization. Thirty-nine percent of arrests involved material that featured children between 3 and 5; 19 percent involved children under 3.
Allen says that "porn addiction" has been growing and that this has led to a growing demand for "new or more out-there" material. "Lately we've seen a more non-traditional pedophile," he says. "These are people looking at porn who are always looking for something more extreme."
Allen says that in 1999 his organization, in conjunction with the Dallas police, located a Web site hosted in Texas run by a husband and wife out of their home. The couple had a roster of 70,000 customers each paying $29.95 a month for child porn deducted directly through their credit cards. They were making more than $2 million a year.
Purchases Hard to Track Down
"The biggest challenges prosecuting child porn on the Internet is that there are no distinct boundaries, unlike the physical world where crime happens and there is a clear victim and offender," says Paul Bresson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. "A lot of the porn bounces off international servers and it's difficult to find where it is coming from."
Other countries that have large trades in child porn include Russia and the Philippines, says Parry Aftab, a lawyer who runs WiredSafety, a Web-based safety and education network with 9,000 volunteers who patrol the Internet looking for child pornography, child molesters and cyberstalkers. The group also runs a tip line for child porn that relays the information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Bresson says that in the United States, the most successful investigations have involved pedophiles who initiate contact with juveniles in chat rooms and e-groups and then travel across state lines to meetings where they were caught. Once authorities locate the pedophile they can seize their hard drives and obtain the child porn as evidence.
Irvine says that more than 60 percent of the sites reported to her group are hosted by three internet service providers including Yahoo, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company that had revenues of $4.83 billion last year. She says that investigations commonly lead to bogus companies on sites set up under false names.
Yahoo is aware that people do host child porn on its servers and asks users to report any sightings.
Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokesperson, says Yahoo investigates each report of child porn made to them, and if they deem the content against the terms of service they remove it and deactivate the user's account.
"We also work with law enforcement to apprehend the individuals if we can," Osako says.
Sandy Kobrin is a writer based in Los Angeles.
For more information:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection:
Note: Women's eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.