Battling Internet Pornography, One Web Site at a Time

As states consider antiporn bills, House passes measure to block children's access to commercial sites.

While Congress works on a successor to the failed Communications Decency Act, some legislators, law-enforcement agencies, and antipornography groups have turned to a more focused approach.

They're doing what conventional wisdom once deemed impossible on the everchanging Internet: singling out the offensive material or criminal individual.

Some of the solutions are very specific. For example:

* Software companies are refining technologies to block smut, and antipornography groups are pressuring service providers to offer "family channels" that don't carry salacious material.

* A growing number of police, once reluctant to attempt cyberinvestigations of sexual abuse and child pornography, are turning to Internet stings.

* In California, a state legislator is going after guerrilla videographers who aim their cameras under the clothes of unsuspecting women.

All these approaches are different from the Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to post "indecent" words or images anywhere on the Internet where children could view them. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down much of the measure, saying it was too vague and endangered free speech.

Now, Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana has introduced legislation aimed only at commercial Web sites. The bill, which was passed by the Senate in July, would require operators to collect a credit-card number or an adult-identification code from everyone seeking access to material deemed "harmful to minors." Last week, the House passed a similar measure.

The Coats bill has drawn opposition from civil liberties groups, who claim it would have a chilling effect on expression. Others say it fails to block access to a broad range of Internet smut available on noncommercial Web sites.

The challenge legislators face in trying to pass a sweeping rule is like the struggle of a farmer trying to catch grasshoppers with a fishing net. The First Amendment precludes a tight weave, so pornographers dart through the holes.

Monique Nelson, of the antipornography group Enough Is Enough, says she believes the legislation will meet her group's first concern: that children be at least partially shielded from Internet smut. But she says Internet service providers need to do more to help parents complete the task.

Service providers argue that programs like NetNanny and CyberSitter, with which people can block access to specific sites, already fill this need. But providers could draw Net-wary subscribers by offering screening and blocking services, says Stephen Jacobs, assistant professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"You could in theory create this oasis," Mr. Jacobs says. "Plenty of people opt not to have X-rated movies on their cable television service. It could work in the same way on the Internet. But that sort of service has to be consumer driven."

While antipornography activists lobby for better blocking of legal X-rated material, law-enforcement agencies are paying more attention to Internet evidence of crimes, especially child pornography.

James McLaughlin, a sex crimes detective in Keene, N.H., was drawn onto the Internet by a local case a little more than a year ago. A woman in his town of 24,000 was accused of luring children to her home via e-mail.

Since then, he's arrested 93 people, including one man who flew from the Netherlands in hope of meeting a boy.

Word appears to be spreading among pedophiles to watch out for the Keene Police Department. "I've had people from as far away as Germany send me copies of articles about what we're doing," McLaughlin says.

Despite such signs of success, about one-third of the police agencies he contacts claim they lack the time or resources to investigate, McLaughlin says. Still, other agencies have started similar programs. McLaughlin now works with a regional task force targeting Internet crime.

Some issues raised by the Internet are far more legally and morally elusive than child pornography. Other forms might be widely perceived as abusive, might even be against the law under slightly different circumstances, and still be legal.

One example is the so-called "upskirt" images beginning to appear on the Net. In shopping malls and amusement parks, Peeping Toms are pointing video cameras under the clothes of unsuspecting women, then posting digitized movies or photographs on Web sites.

LAST June, detectives in Anaheim, Calif., questioned a man after security guards caught him angling a concealed video camera under the skirts of women at Disneyland. Investigators reluctantly freed the man when they could find no basis for an arrest.

The First Amendment protects most forms of expression on the Internet. Further, although Peeping Tom laws prevent secret taping in places such as bathrooms and changing rooms, where there is "an expectation of privacy," there is nothing illegal about videotaping in public.

Outraged by the case, California Assemblyman Jim Morrissey has drafted a law banning such surreptitious taping. He plans to introduce the legislation when the Assembly convenes in December.

"What I'm trying to do is make a law that is very, very specific," Mr. Morrissey says. "I think, and I believe the vast majority of women think, that the inside of a person's skirt is private."

Barry Steinhardt of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties organization, questioned whether Morrissey's legislation could hamper such Web sites.

"We've already had one case where a federal court struck down a state law regulating the Internet," Mr. Steinhardt says. "In the end, I'm significantly less concerned about state legislation than federal laws."

But at least one Web site operator appears to be using Morrissey's bill to attract more viewers.

"Check out the video while you can. The laws could change any day," a notice on the site urges.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.