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Thinking the unthinkable about kids and Net porn

In fighting to protect children's online safety, CNET News.com's Charles Cooper worries that we're engaged in a losing battle.

In England, the government plans a crackdown on pedophiles' Internet aliases. Home Secretary John Reid wants to force pedophiles to register their cybernicknames and e-mail addresses.

So it is that the United Kingdom plans to study the feasibility of a system that would issue alerts whenever convicted pedophiles logged on to Internet chat rooms.

At first blush, that sounds like just the ticket.

"The Internet brings huge advantages and a whole new world to kids, and kids are very Internet-savvy," Reid said earlier this week. "But they are not always worldly wise."

Tell me something we don't already know. Cyberstalkers are motivated, tech-savvy, and usually seem to be one long step ahead of the government. Reid's proposal pointed to the faint hope that the authorities could turn technology to the public's advantage. But it continues to be an uphill slog.

The British government's get-tough promises were quickly overtaken by reports out of Austria of the existence of a vast international child pornography ring. The network involved at least 2,360 suspects from 77 countries. (The FBI is said to be investigating about 600 of the suspects in the United States.) What the police turned up was horrible. The local press quoted one Austrian police official saying that girls could be viewed being raped. You could also hear their screams.

With all the intellectual firepower at society's disposal, why do the good guys forever seem to be playing catch-up to the sleazebags?

Depraved people have been around for all of human history. The difference now is they can exploit technology to make a buck. Still, the infliction of terror on the most vulnerable among us leaves one mute with rage. With all the intellectual firepower at society's disposal, why do the good guys forever seem to be playing catch-up to the sleazebags? Why can't they turn the tide? So it's understandable that when it comes to children and pornography, the frustration with the status quo is boiling over.

And it's forcing a political realignment. U.S. Sen. (and Republican presidential wannabe) John McCain this week proposed a tough new law aimed at helping police crack down on child pornography. These days it's rare to see left and right unite under a common banner, but unlike taxes or the war in Iraq, the fight against Internet porn crosses political lines. As he announced his proposal on Thursday, McCain was flanked by that torchbearer of mainstream liberalism, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Free speechers and civil-liberties worrywarts (like yours truly) noticed that this was not just the typical photo op. There is now major support in both major political parties for taking action. But where this might head remains unclear.

McCain's proposal would triple the penalties on Internet service providers that fail to report illicit images and make it a criminal offense. Did his advisers forget that existing laws already deal with data retention and Web labeling and include some child porn reporting penalties?

ISPs must already report illegal images or face substantial fines. There is no known case of any ISP covering up for pornographers. Hate to be the Friday cynic, but so much of this smacks of grandstanding. (The McCain bill also requires the reporting of cartoons that may be judged obscene. I kid you not.)

None of this is meant to trivialize the challenge. A recent University of New Hampshire study found that 4 out of 10 American youths, ages 10 to 17, have seen pornography online, and two-thirds say it was uninvited. That means there's a very good chance your kids are going to see penises, vaginas, breasts and any combination thereof rubbing against each other. Without you even knowing.

We can tut-tut and posture all day long. Go ahead and talk all you like about how parents should be more responsible. That's not enough. We're all wired, and these days that includes kids. If there's a clear answer out there, I'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, I find myself wrestling with the unthinkable notion that we're engaged in a losing battle.