'Off-Line' Hazards Lie In Web's Links, Lures
The Orchid Club was once a lurid corner on the information superhighway - an Internet conference room or "chat room" where members thousands of miles apart could meet in cyberspace and trade homemade child pornography, both in words and pictures.Skip to next paragraph
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To enter the club's electronic backroom, members needed a password. No one could join the club without a referral from a member, and initiates were required to send other members a description of a sexual encounter with a child.
According to a federal indictment in San Jose, Calif., Orchid Club members used an on-line electronic medium known as "Internet relay chat," or IRC, to not only share live conversations but also to transmit digitized still pictures and live video images of children as they were being molested by a member.
The Orchid Club was exposed last month after police began investigating the sexual abuse of a six-year-old girl in Greenfield, Calif. Federal indictments list the names of 16 Orchid Club members in the United States, Canada, Finland, and Australia on charges of conspiring to produce and disseminate child pornography.
But the Orchid Club's members were hardly alone in their peculiar use of the Internet.
Internet porn as threat
As home access to the Internet grows rapidly, so too does the threat that this on-line medium will expand opportunities for sexual exploitation of children - particularly in United States and Canada where sales of home PCs are booming.
About 10 million people use on-line services and tens of millions more use the Internet worldwide - including IRC and the graphics-oriented World Wide Web. Among those millions, a small percentage are pedophiles who discover each other in unregulated electronic forums.
They typically exchange experiences and pictures, police say, which then reinforces their behavior and encourages more physical encounters with children "off line."
The Internet's role in facilitating a renewed spate of child sexual exploitation has ignited furious debate in Europe, the US, and Canada over free-speech rights and government regulation of a new communications medium as untamed as the old American Wild West.
In the case of the Orchid Club, children were not apparently molested for profit. But sexual abuse was encouraged by the conferencing ability of the Internet. And it is only a click of a computer mouse from that kind of chat room to a normal kids' chat room, police say.
Pedophilia expands reach
While it is certainly possible for technically adept kids to find child pornography on their own on the Internet, the key danger of child sexual exploitation is significantly more subtle.
Given the anonymity that is possible on the Internet, an increasing number of pedophiles are feigning youth in their electronic personae as they troll through various forums looking for children to abuse. Often this does not require even getting on the Internet directly, but onto the side-roads of an on-line "brand" service.
Few police departments have specialists focusing on computer on-line exploitation of children. But as the problem grows, so do calls for more attention to it.
Douglas Rehman, a special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has made 12 arrests over two years of people using the Internet either for child porn or to meet kids to have sex with them. "This is not a static percentage - it's a growth crime," Mr. Rehman says. "The Internet and on-line services are the absolute best hunting ground the pedophile could wish for."
Nationwide, he estimates 250-300 charges of child sexual exploitation using the Internet have been brought in the last two years.
Typically a child uses the family computer to dial onto the Internet through a service provider or onto one of the on-line services, all of which have electronic "forums" set aside for children. During these instantaneous on-line electronic chat sessions, children send electronic messages to other kids who appear to have common interests.
But because there is near anonymity, it is impossible for a child to know if the person named "Terri" with whom he or she is communicating is a 12-year-old girl or a 45-year-old man pretending to be a young girl. On-line services now provide adult "hosts" to keep an eye on discussions and watch for abuses. But IRC chat groups and Internet newsgroups designated with "alt." prefix in the Internet address usually have no such regulation.