Millions of children around the world are being sexually abused and molested. Billions of dollars are changing hands as part of a growing crime wave of child pornography. This is anything but a victimless crime. Children – some as young as infants – are being barbarically assaulted for the sexual gratification of their abusers and those who view their photos.
While inroads have been made in the fight against child pornography, the problem remains severe. We have much more to do.
The Internet has become a child pornography superhighway, turning children into a commodity for sale or trade. Analysts at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) have reviewed 9.6 million images and videos of child pornography on the Internet just since 2002. There are millions more such images in cyberspace that we have yet to find.
Law enforcement agencies are cracking down on this crime wave. In November, the chief operating officer of the National Children's Museum in Washington was arrested and charged with distributing child pornography over the Internet. Also this month, police across Europe announced they had arrested nearly 100 people linked to a network that allegedly produced and sold child pornography videos to 2,500 customers worldwide.
In 1998 Congress asked NCMEC to create a "9-1-1 for the Internet." We established CyberTipline (www.cybertipline.com), which has received more than 500,000 reports from the public and Internet service providers regarding child sexual exploitation. More than 460,000 of those reports involved child pornography.
What is child pornography? It goes far beyond nude pictures of children. It is the visual depiction – whether in still photos or video – of children being sexually assaulted. In some instances, rapes of children have been shown live over the Internet to paying customers. In 1982, the US Supreme Court held that child pornography is not protected speech but child abuse.
Some suggest that many people who view child pornography just "look at the pictures." But our work on these cases has led us to conclude that for most of those who view these images, sex with children becomes a compulsion and evolves into physical acts with real children.
When NCMEC analysts scour the Internet for child pornography, they determine whether website content is illegal, use search tools and techniques to identify and track down the distributors of child pornography, and then provide the information to the appropriate local, state, federal, or international law enforcement agency.
Law enforcement agencies and NCMEC have managed to identify almost 1,200 of the many children who appear in child pornography. We have found that 35 percent of the photos were taken by a parent, 15 percent by another family member, and 20 percent by someone close to the child or the family. We have provided more than 12,000 evidence reports to prosecutors and law enforcement officers to assist in prosecutions of those accused of these crimes.
Sadly, NCMEC has found that the children being used in these images are getting younger and younger, and the images are becoming more graphic and more violent. Of the children in pornographic photos and videos who have been identified, 58 percent had not yet reached puberty.
To stop the use of credit cards that fuel the child pornography industry, NCMEC created the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography. Today this coalition includes 90 percent of the US payments industry, with growing international involvement. The 30 companies in the coalition include MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Bank of America, Citigroup, Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo, Google, and many others.
Thanks to the participating companies and extraordinary leadership from federal, state, and local law enforcement, we have virtually eliminated the use of credit cards in child pornography transactions. Although credit card logos still appear on some sites, now when consumers attempt to use credit cards, they either become victims of identity theft or are redirected to another method of payment.
In too many places around the world, the possession of child pornography is handled as a relatively minor offense. In fact, in 136 countries it is not even a crime.
Children depend on adults to keep them safe. We need to do more to protect them from dangerous, cold-hearted predators who want to harm them for pleasure and profit. We need to recognize child pornography as a crime against humanity that must be attacked more forcefully and that deserves harsh punishment.
Ernie Allen is president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit charitable organization based in Alexandria, Va.