Frank Clark has prowled the dark alleys of online crime for years - first as a Fresno, Calif., police detective and now as an investigator with the prosecutor's office in Pierce County, Wash. So what does the veteran cybercrime fighter think of yesterday's Supreme Court action, which struck down the Internet pornography law Congress passed last year?
Like many cyberspace investigators, he believes the Communications Decency Act was too broad and restrictive. The high court apparently agreed, saying the CDA trampled on free-speech rights of adults in its efforts to protect children from explicit images.
But there's plenty Congress still can do to combat this growing threat, investigators say. "On the Internet, we have 100 million people and virtually no cops, no groups that are in charge," Mr. Clark says. "And law enforcement is ill-prepared to handle it nationally and internationally. I really think if things don't change quick ... that we're headed for an electronic Armageddon."
The solution: targeted cyberspace laws that will throw light on the identities of those who deal in child pornography and encourage police to form networks to match the national and international reach of cyber- pornographers.
"What law enforcement wants is a tool that is more concise, more in focus," says Alfred Olsen, chief of the Warwick Township Police Department in Lititz, Pa., and coauthor of a book on online investigations. The biggest concern? Online anonymity.
Three years ago, for example, Clark was trolling online when someone sent him pictures of boys, six to eight years old, unconscious and sexually abused. The sender believed Clark sold child pornography and might want to add to his wares. Instead, Clark started an investigation, but the trail eventually evaporated in Virginia, in a cloud of assumed names and forged credit cards.
The byways of pornographic crime have always been dim and dark, but in cyberspace they're particularly impenetrable. Online criminals carry on elaborate masquerades. That is why investigators are eager for laws that would require online service companies to verify the identities or at least the addresses of their customers.
They'd also like to see laws encouraging state judges to approve subpoenas of records of online service companies, even when those records reside in a different state. Judges many times refuse to do it.
The Supreme Court's decision yesterday, though, removes an antiporn weapon in CDA that might have been useful to investigators. The law would have made it illegal for pornographers indiscriminately to send out electronic ads for their wares.
Doug Rehman, special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, says parents have recently complained that their children have received e-mail advertisements for online pornography. Although the pitch was clear, the ads weren't pornographic, strictly speaking, because sensitive body parts were covered.
For concerned parents, there may be no option now but to vigilantly supervise their children's online viewing. Mr. Rehman could not find a state or federal law that would keep pornographers from sending out electronic ads indiscriminately. They could always argue they didn't know a particular e-mail address belonged to a child.
In throwing out the 1996 CDA, the high court decided its first case on the rapidly expanding global computer network. The network connects as many as 40 million people using more than 9.4 million computers worldwide.
"It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. "But that interest does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults."
In defending the law, the Clinton administration argued that Internet technology lets children go online to find sexually explicit material.
The Internet's global reach is a key concern of cybercrime cops. "Once you cross international boundaries, it starts to get difficult," says Rehman, who has worked on more than 100 online child pornography cases. Because America's laws don't extend to foreign countries, there's little US officials can do, especially if a foreign nation has fewer restrictions on pornography than the US does.
Still, there are signs of cooperation. In a celebrated case last July, British, German, and Austrian officials helped US authorities break up a child-pornography group known as the Orchid Club. Three of the 16 indictments were handed down against individuals in Finland, Australia, and Canada. In November, Canadian authorities arrested an Ontario man they believe was connected to the group and found 30,000 pornographic computer files - one of the largest seizures of pornographic material in North America.