Caught in the crime Net

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

How to protect children from on-line pornography and paedophiles misusing cyberspace.

RECENTLY British newspapers prominently carried the picture of a 15-year-old, Darren Freeman, who was reunited with his parents after he was missing from home for five days. There were wild speculations that the boy had been kidnapped by an unknown criminal gang and that there was hardly a chance of his being rescued alive. It ultimately turned out that he had spent the week in the company of two young men - 17 and 21 years - whom he had hardly known before and had met on-line. Darren had been introduced to the ritual of a `chat room' for just three months and had become a near addict, though his parents claimed that they were monitoring his surfing habits! The outcome of police questioning of the boy is not yet known at the time of writing.

Also comes recently the report of a German police claim that they have smashed a huge international child pornography ring involving several thousands of Internet users spread over 166 countries. They have been able to identify three child victims who had figured in pornographic images circulated on cyberspace all over the world. The raid by the German police yielded 745 computers, besides a mind-boggling number of CDs, floppy discs and video-cassettes. While seven persons were arrested in the United Kingdom alone, more than 500 were being questioned by the Germans. Perhaps, the most shocking piece of information was that one of the obscene images seized was that of a four-month-old child. Can anything be more sickening?

The Metropolitan Police in London is more than alive to the menace. `Operation Ore' is the name for one of the largest drives launched by them against child pornography, following a tip-off from a massive inquiry into the activities of paedophiles that began in Texas four years ago. The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) had received names of more than 7,000 subscribers to the pornographic sites. But the verification process has been painfully slow. However, till January this year, the offensive has produced more than 1,300 arrests. Those held included judges, teachers, doctors, care workers and soldiers. More startling was the arrest of about 50 police officers. Ironically, two policemen who were associated with last year's investigation of the sensational murder of two young girls in Soham - Jessica Chapman and Holy Wells - were among those charged with child pornography. This itself would indicate the insidious nature of the crime that has spread its tentacles far and wide.

There is absolutely no doubt that crime over the Net is becoming more and more rampant. With the international market soaring and profits rising, we can safely predict that the police would have to deal with gangs from countries that had not been in their reckoning earlier. One can also expect these gangs to be more daring and insensitive to the normal law-abiding citizen who wants to live a life as removed as possible from the underworld. The internationalisation of crime and the space and anonymity provided by the Internet may not permit the luxury of a citizen remaining immune to the goings-on in the cyberspace. What should bother us is not mere pornography on the Net, but the use of children for pepping up such an obnoxious trade. There is a new urgency to protect children. But policemen all over the world - especially those in Europe and the United States - who are weighed down already by the growing complexity of their charter, are confounded by the intricacies thrown up by assaults perpetrated through the cyberspace.

While for every computer crime reported several go unnoticed, it is believed that developing countries are not distant from being affected by the scourge. In the days to come, computerisation may, far from being a blessing, actually be regarded as a curse because of the enlarging influence of porn on the Net and its easy marketability. If the attitude of resignation that is slowly creeping upon parents that they are helpless in controlling their children's access to obscenity as also to total strangers via the Internet is any indication, governments and law-enforcement agencies will have their tasks cut out for them.

The antidote will have to be not merely more imaginative enforcement strategies, but one that takes care also of the psyche of parents and their young ones. It has to be admitted that the ease with which children can be lured into undesirable relations with total strangers and the anonymity that cyberspace provides to depredators were totally overlooked till a few years ago. Ironically, the concept of `chat rooms' evoked so much euphoria initially that few ever visualised that it could soon prove to be a menace to the health and safety of young children. This development has been to the dismay of parents who were only the other day boasting of how computer savvy their young ones had become! Microsoft's decision to close down its popular free chat room service in many countries is welcome, although it cannot have much of an impact if other Internet Service Providers who now levy a fee, do not also follow suit.

Like the war against terrorism, the strategy against pornography on the Net has to be twofold. First, tighten up the law, a course that may yield only modest dividends against a determined and depraved intruder who is either out to satisfy his corrupt mind or make big money. Second, give more teeth to the enforcement machinery and make it focussed. This is much more sensible than merely making the law harsher. In the confrontation with a seasoned paedophile, there is a third strategy that is available and is easier to implement. This is one of educating parents on ways in which they could protect their wards. We are bound to succeed here because emotions are involved, and seldom do you come across a parent who is unwilling to cooperate, however much he is unlettered, on issues that concern his or her children. More of this later.

The U.S. has perhaps been the most aggressive in the area of legislation against obscenity directed at children. The U.S. Congress passed a Sexual Exploitation of Children Act as early as 1977, and followed it up with the Child Protection Act, 1984 and the Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography Act, 1988. What, however, triggered national attention and determination was the sudden and inexplicable disappearance in 1993 of a juvenile from his home in Maryland. This led to a major investigation and the arrest of two suspects who, it was found, were carrying on with child sexual exploitation unchecked for nearly 25 years. Enquiries revealed their free use of computers to transmit explicit images of children across the globe. Congress moved in to adopt the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. The focus of this legislation was to empower the police even in cases where adults were "morphed" to look like children.

In the U.K., both the Protection of Children Act,1978 and the Criminal Justice Act, 1988 deal extensively with child pornography. According to the former, an `indecent photograph' of a child would include "data stored on a computer disc or by other electronic means which is capable of conversion into a photograph". Under the 1988 Act, it is an offence for a person "to have any indecent photograph of a child (below 18 years) in his possession" unless he has a valid explanation, such as lack of knowledge or delivery of the photograph to him unsolicited, and can also prove that he had not kept it with him for an unreasonable length of time. The Tony Blair government's sensitivity is revealed by the elaborate Sexual Offences Bill, 2003 that is pending in Parliament. Sections 50, 51 and 52 deal with child pornography and make the causing, inciting, controlling or facilitating of child prostitution or pornography punishable under law.

WE in India have possibly underestimated the pernicious impact of pornography, especially that which is circulated over the Net and which uninhibitedly exploits images of children. We still rely heavily on Sections 292 and 293 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The former deals with the sale of obscene objects (books, pamphlets, writing, drawing, and so on.) generally, and the latter, to persons under the age of 20. Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 deals with publishing of obscene information in the electronic form. It prescribes a penalty of imprisonment for five years and a fine of Rs.100,000 for a first time conviction. Subsequent convictions will entail 10 years and Rs.200,000 respectively. It is a matter for debate whether we need to enhance the punishments prescribed , to make them more deterrent. In the alternative, do we need a specific law that addresses the problem of child pornography on the Net or elsewhere, akin to what the U.S. has done? In any case, Parliament needs to be persuaded by public interest groups to show greater sensitivity to an issue that is bound to assume enormous proportions as more households acquire computer systems.

Law enforcement agencies in many countries in the West have been weighed down by the volume of crime on the Net that is reported to them. Although they give top priority to offences against children, the huge numbers unearthed by the police have resulted in many paedophiles escaping follow-up action. Another difficulty encountered is the enormous pressure brought on them by social groups that believe in reformation rather than punishment of offenders.

Perhaps, of all agencies, it is the Federal Bureau of Investigation that has a system in place to tackle pornography. It considers child pornography via the Internet as the most significant of all cyber crimes, and has a cyber tip-off line that has brought in abundant information from citizens. The FBI's focus is on large-scale producers and distributors of obscene material. Attention has also been paid to identifying persons who travel frequently across states to indulge in sexual activity with children. A useful exercise has been the Innocent Images National Initiative (IINI) that galvanises several agencies together on to a single platform that relies mostly on intelligence and technology. London's Metropolitan Police has also been active on this front. Indian agencies, especially the Central Bureau of Investigation and State CIDs (Criminal Investigation Departments), may have to pool their resources and put up a joint front. Any complacence and inaction will only encourage paedophiles. I am sure we have many of them in our country who need to be identified and reformed if not punished.

There is a definite case for private initiatives to combat the evil. A good example is the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) of the U.K. established in 1996 mainly to tackle the problem of illegal material on the Net. As an independent organisation, it has done significant work to implement proposals that emanate from government, the police and ISPs in the country. I am not sure that we have anything of the kind.

In the final analysis, all governmental efforts are bound to fail if schools and parents do not contribute their own, by exercising greater influence over their children. While schools may impart basic instruction on how not to abuse computer facilities, at home parents need to display vigilance over surfing habits of children. One suggestion has been that a home computer is installed in a common room easily accessible to everyone in the family, rather than in a child's bedroom. Also, children should be strictly instructed not to cultivate strangers over the chat room nor give them their identity particulars such as name, address and telephone numbers. Any child receiving frequent telephone calls from an individual whom he or she has met only on-line or gifts from such a person will have to be clearly told to desist from responding. He or she should be advised to firmly reject suggestions of face-to-face meetings. Also to be prohibited is a child uploading his or her photograph on to the Net. These are basic safety tips that could avert mishaps. I will be most delighted to hear from readers if they have found these suggestions, endorsed by many law enforcement agencies, useful.

I will be happier if they report that they have passed them on to many others who may not have access to my column. For, ultimately it is the dissemination of such critical information that can strengthen the hands of investigating agencies, which are otherwise fighting a near hopeless situation of spiralling crime.

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