When Krissy Eckholdt turned on her computer in Provo, Utah, she opened up an e-mail from an unknown sender with the subject heading: "Your services are accepted." She expected to see a letter from some company or bank wanting her to sign up for something. Not at all. It was a "teen slut" site, which, after encouraging her to see the site, told her she'd been put on their mailing list and must come to the site to be removed.
As she wrote in her local newspaper: "I was disgusted. In my naivety I replied, making this my chance to chew out pornographic sites and those who support them. To my amazement, after I sent the letter, four more pornographic advertisements appeared."
Now Krissy is part of the legion of parents, grand-parents, concerned citizens, and law enforcement officers who have joined in the war against Internet pornography and, particularly, child pornography. It is a war of extraordinary magnitude, as an estimated 400 new pornographic sites a day open up on the Internet from locations as diverse as Thailand and Russia.
Sometimes the aim is to expose children to pornographic material. More ominously, it can also aim to engage in exchanges that can lead to meetings and sexual exploitation by pedophiles.
In the United States, the target is the 10 million children who go online each day, nearly all of them anxious to communicate with other people online. In a special report earlier this month, Newsweek magazine cited a survey of 1,500 children ages 10 to 17 last year that indicated 1 in 4 had had an unwanted exposure to some kind of image of naked people or people having sex. One in 33 had received an "aggressive solicitation," meaning that someone had asked them to meet, or called on the phone, or sent them regular mail, money, or gifts.
Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. will soon publish an article called "Pornography: Main Street to Wall Street" in the conservative Heritage Foundation's publication Policy Review, suggesting that porn has become mainstream. "Wall Street once wouldn't have touched the business with a 10-foot pole," he writes. "Now it may not brag about the association but reputable brokerages have been glad to help porn-related companies with public listings on US stock exchanges. Venture firms have been major backers of companies that provide billing and tracking services for on-line smut merchants.... Respectable companies have quietly become major players in porn distribution."
Though the pornographers sometimes have substantial resources and a virtually open-ended world-wide communications system behind which they can attempt to hide in the anonymous void of cyberspace, the war is not all one-sided.
The pornographers fear that the Bush administration will take a far tougher stand on pornography than the Clinton administration. Various American states have enacted, or are pondering, legislation requiring library systems to limit children's access to Internet pornography. Although being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, a national bill is in the making.
Law-enforcement agencies are moving aggressively to catch and punish the pornographers who prey on children. The anonymity in which the predators cloak themselves also works to the advantage of law-enforcement officers. Predators who pursue what they think are young children on the Internet sometimes discover that the children they arrange to meet and exploit turn out to be lawmen trolling the Internet for them. The FBI is more active in arresting predators who cross state lines to date children they have wooed on the Internet.
Krissy Eckholdt's state of Utah is one with traditionally large families, and thus is a potentially fruitful hunting ground for pedophiles. The state recently appointed a "porn czar," first in the nation, to titters from some liberal journalists, but aggressive prosecution of cyberpredators is critical in the war against them. Utah's porn czar will help parents and communities guard against Internet porn, and be a resource for local governments that want to write effective ordinances against smut.
Various filters exist to screen out offensive Internet sites, but they are not foolproof. Family vigilance remains the best line of defense. Experts say computers should be placed in a public area of the home so parents can monitor their children's usage. Parents should become suspicious if a child receives phone calls, mail, or packages from unknown men.
Other warning signals: if your child turns the computer off quickly when you enter the room; if your child is using an online account belonging to someone else; if your child becomes withdrawn from the family.
Thus the war against pornography is joined in what Newsweek calls the "darkest corner of the Internet." Undercover police officers, FBI agents, librarians, and legislators can all play their part in stemming this tide of filth. But the strength of family ties should not be underestimated.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor