I was recently reminded of how sex can be used to exploit the vulnerable and terrorize the innocent. I'm speaking, of course, about child pornography, which has been much on my mind since the Federal Bureau of Investigation's biggest child porn-ring bust, Operation Candyman, hit the headlines last year. Now more than ever, it seems the horrors of child porn are being exposed. How many innocent lives will be destroyed before the child porn wars are over?
To answer, let me tell you a little story about my involvement with child porn. About two and a half years ago, I was at work when yet another annoying spam arrived in my e-mail box, helpfully alerting me to the fact that "hot Russian girls" could be mine in just seconds. Bored and vaguely amused by the idea of a Russian porn site, I decided to click on the link. When I got there, I couldn't believe my eyes. The site was full of arty softcore images of girls who were clearly no older than 13.
Up until that point, I had always believed kiddie porn was like snuff films, more rumor than reality. But there it was: pornography featuring prepubescent girls. Making the whole thing feel even more surreal was that the URL had come to me in spam - how stupid is that if you're committing about six billion crimes at once? It was disturbing and freaky and sad, and I had a brief childish wish that I could turn into Batman and rescue those kids. Then I sighed helplessly, closed my browser, and deleted the e-mail.
I stumbled onto this Web site accidentally, believing it was adult porn. I didn't want to see child porn, and when I did see it, I was squicked. Nevertheless, for this accidental exposure to child porn, I could go to jail for up to five years. That's what happened to Adam Vaughn, one of the people arrested during Operation Candyman. As Steve Silberman reported several months ago in Wired, Vaughn was accused of possessing child pornography on the basis of images in his browser cache and downloaded photos he had deleted from his hard drive long before the accusations. Although Vaughn says he never sought out or wanted to keep pornographic images of children, he's serving four and a half years in jail.
As I know from personal experience, it's very easy for a nonpedophile to get child porn images in her browser cache: Just visit a child porn site by accident, get weirded out, and leave. The images you glanced at in disgust remain in your cache like accusatory digital ghosts. There are also easy ways for a nonpedophiliac, porn-loving person like myself to find child porn images on her hard drive. If you want a bunch of sexy pictures, it's common to run one of many "spider" programs that are designed to browse newsgroups and automatically suck all images down to your hard drive for, erm, inspection later. If I'm looking for hot lesbian porn, I'll set my spidering software to download all of the images from the newsgroup alt.sex.lesbian. It's possible I may get one or two sick images from a jerk who posted them randomly. When I find those images later, I'll delete them. But even after deletion, the image files remain on my hard drive until the memory overwrites them. This may take years, or never happen. A forensic analyst could look at my hard drive, find those deleted images, and call me a pedophile.
Sure, there are ways for me to scour my hard drive and remove all traces of my deleted files: on Sourceforge there's a free software program for Windows called Eraser, and if you search for "wipe" there, you'll find a version of this program for Linux, too. But for people who don't know about these programs, there is always the danger that an image that crossed their desktop on the way to the trash or recycle bin can and will be used against them in court.
I have a theory about who is really getting punished by stings like Operation Candyman. Sure, some pedophiles may get caught, and that's great. But what about the innocents whose browser caches get them thrown in the slammer? They're people like me and Vaughn -- people who download free porn. If you get your porn only from pay sites like Playboy.com, you aren't ever going to stumble accidentally across Russian kiddie porn, because content on adult pay sites is strongly regulated and edited. Random creeps can post child porn to adult newsgroups, but they can't do that on pay sites.
Unfortunately, if you seek out free, unregulated porn, it's almost certain that child porn has left its tracks somewhere on your computer. And mass busts like Operation Candyman are just one way to create a chilling effect on the proliferation and use of free porn. Congress is also debating crackdowns on peer-to-peer networks because they're a major source for free pictures of sex. It's as if our government is telling us that if we're going to look at porn, we'd better pay for it. Otherwise, we might get branded pedophiles.
How many innocent lives will be destroyed before the child porn wars are over?
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd with an empty browser cache and a squeaky-clean hard drive. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.