CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Internet

State weighs in with Net porn bill

New Hampshire is the latest state to introduce legislation aimed at updating its child pornography laws to include online crimes.

    The case of a man using the Net to romance and persuade a 13-year-old New Hampshire girl to run away with him has sparked a campaign to strengthen the state's child pornography laws to include online crimes.

    New Hampshire is the latest state to introduce legislation aimed at bringing its law books into the digital age. Federal law already prohibits possessing or trafficking child porn and the sexual solicitation of minors, with penalties of up to ten and 15 years in prison, respectively. But state lawmakers want to reinforce the federal statute to reassure their residents that the practice, which is becoming more common, is considered a serious crime.

    California, Illinois, North Carolina, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Texas already updated their child sexual exploitation laws to include computer Hacker group battles child porn networks and images. There is even a federal statute that makes it a felony to create computer images depicting "simulated" sex with minors.

    Private citizens are dabbling in law enforcement, too. Groups such as the Ethical Hackers Against Pedophilia (EHAP) and a site called Pedowatch forward tips to federal agents about suspected child pornographers. The FBI also has created a special task force to combat the problem.

    The push to strengthen Net child pornography laws is no doubt due to the numerous cases surfacing nationwide of minors sneaking off to meet adults who courted them online, sometimes posing as youngsters. These incidents horrify parents, who worry that their children will meet with a Net "sweetheart" and end up kidnapped, sexually assaulted, or exploited in child pornography. In addition, the Net has become a popular breeding ground for exchanging sexual images or videos of minors via chat rooms or newsgroups.

    Democratic New Hampshire State Rep. Lori Cardin submitted a bill yesterday that criminalizes using the Net or a computer to publish or transmit child pornography or lure a minor. The legislation also makes it clear that online access providers will be held criminally liable for "knowingly" allowing customers to engage in these activities.

    Cardin's son went to school with the young girl who ran away last April to meet a 23-year-old New Hampshire man, who was later sentenced to 12 to 24 years in prison for "transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes," according to the Associated Press.

    But holding ISPs responsible for subscribers' conduct may hinder Cardin's effort. The American Civil Liberties Union already has taken issue with the provision. "It's always troubling when state legislatures or Congress tries to hold the service providers liable, because it places them in the role of cop," Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel to the ACLU, said today.

    "We have no problem with laws that prohibit people from soliciting children," he added. "But law enforcement ought to do its job, and ISPs should just connect people to the Net."

    Although lawmakers have been hard-pressed to find solutions to ban children's access to online pornography or indecent material, the Justice Department and the FBI say they will fight the proliferation of Net child porn and track down suspects.

    Last year Congress allocated $10 million for the FBI's Innocent Images program, headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. Under the program, FBI agents go online and portray themselves as children and pursue those who solicit encounters with them. The three-year-old program also serves as a clearinghouse for tips and information regarding suspected online crimes against children.

    Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) lobbied last year for extra money to expand the program. "Predators and child porn were becoming more common, so she fought for the $10 million for the special task force for 1998," Eva Rosvold, the senator's spokeswoman, said today.

    The Baltimore bureau of the FBI launched the effort when it learned that suspects in the abduction of a local 13-year-old boy had allegedly used America Online to bait children into performing illegal sex acts and for transmitting the material. To date, Innocent Images has chalked up 150 arrests.

    In a separate case last January, AOL was sued by a West Palm Beach, Florida, woman who alleged that the online service "allowed" a subscriber to distribute pornographic pictures of her 11-year-old son and two other boys.

    In June, a district court dismissed the case, citing a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that states, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

    The FBI doesn't comment on pending legislation, but seemed grateful for any help it could get from states such as New Hampshire. "I have seen firsthand the filth and garbage these pedophiles are sending out, and we welcome any assistance in trying to rid the Net of this stuff," Larry Foust, an FBI special agent with Innocent Images, said today. "This problem is much larger than anyone could have imagined."