Tagging the Child Smut Trade

The overwhelming majority of Americans want to close the door on adults who exploit children sexually. That strong public pressure helps justify two new actions that should help curb this perverse practice.

• The first action is a set of Justice Department regulations that went into effect Thursday and which require pornographers and porn distributors to keep records of their performers' ages and identities.

These rules expand existing laws designed to protect children from being used in the production of pornography. They require that sexually explicit materials display labels indicating that the producers maintain private records proving the age of a sex-industry performer and his or her identity. The labels must accompany photos, images, or movies. They apply to Internet porn sites as well. This will justifiably require owners to be able to verify and record the age and identity of anyone who appears in an explicit image on their website.

The Free Speech Association, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, has already filed a lawsuit challenging the regulations on two fronts. It claims recordkeeping should only apply to producers of sexually explicit material, not to the distributors. And it claims the privacy of workers in the sex industry will be compromised. Clearly, having available these detailed records expands the tools of prosecutors seeking criminal charges against child pornographers. That it will have a "chilling effect" on sites because of the administrative overhead is also likely. What the courts should not lose sight of is that society's goal is to protect children and families, not child pornographers.

Prosecution of the smut peddlers who exploit children is a responsible goal worth a constitutional test.

• The second action is a decision earlier this month by the private governing body of the Internet that assigns names and addresses to offer porn sites an Internet "domain" address - .xxx (in lieu of .com) - with the hope that this will eventually zone them in a cyber "red-light" district and make it easier for parents to filter these sites. Unfortunately, participation will be voluntary and, as is the way of the Web, self-regulating. Pornographers who now have .com sites will be able to keep those as well as tag their wares more transparently with .xxx

These measures, however, can only do so much. Porn sites can go offshore. Europe, and Russia in particular, need to follow suit in preventing the use of minors by pornographers.

Vigilant and caring parents remain the best protectors of children from online smut or from being lured into pornography. A child's innocence and dignity requires all to protect those qualities.

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