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Internet

U.N. group to combat online child porn

A United Nations-led Internet child protection effort is attracting attention from top U.S. technology companies, law enforcement agencies and educational institutions.

With legislation to protect minors from online sexual predators stalled in the courts, a United Nations-led Internet child protection effort is attracting attention from top U.S. technology companies, law enforcement agencies and educational institutions.

Dubbed "Innocence in Danger," the U.N. initiative is focusing on pedophilia and child pornography and will proceed under the auspices of a group called Wired Kids, which also addresses "digital divide" issues of equitable access and education for children.

Participants include Microsoft, AT&T, America Online, Lycos, the American Library Association, the National Education Association, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The activity springs from a conference called in Paris in September 1998 following a massive European sting against alleged traffickers in online child pornography. Innocence in Danger falls under the domain of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

High among the new group's goals is to provide a clearinghouse for information related to online child porn and pedophilia that child protection groups around the world can share. The group's founders envision an "online virtual think tank."

These efforts have already led to academic research on children's online behavior. Based on a Net survey of more than 10,000 respondents, three American UNESCO appointees are preparing to release a study suggesting that young women and girls are not approaching the Internet with sufficient caution. Not surprisingly, they conclude that stronger regulations are needed to improve safety.

The Wired Kids project gets under way amid a roiling international debate about the role of the Internet in the sexual exploitation of children. In the United States, the issue has pitted civil liberties groups against children's rights proponents in a series of high-profile legal skirmishes over the openness of the Internet.

The issue has most recently been in the spotlight following the mistrial late last year of former Infoseek executive Patrick Naughton on charges of using the Internet to seek sex with a minor. Naughton is scheduled for retrial in March; he has denied wrongdoing.

Children's advocates have recently faced legal setbacks in the United States on several fronts.

In December, a federal appeals court struck down the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, finding the law went too far when it outlawed materials that either "appear to be" or "convey the impression" they are sexually explicit pictures of children.

In addition, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which restricts access to online material that is deemed "harmful to minors," has been tied up in the courts for more than a year.

Risky behavior
Throwing a new element into the debate is a broad survey of children's and teen-agers' behavior suggesting that tougher laws may be needed.

Conducted by two professors at the University of South Florida and an attorney specializing in children's online safety issues, the study surveyed 10,800 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 who opted to participate through the Seventeen Online Web site. The researchers set out to document what they suspected was a lack of caution taken by girls and young women online. Their suspicions were confirmed.

The study determined that many young women and girls turn to the Internet as a sexual outlet: 60 percent of the girls surveyed reported having engaged in some kind of sexual activity while online, phrased by the respondents as "cybersex."

In addition, the survey found that girls frequently meet people in person whom they have encountered online. Fifteen percent of those online 10 to 12 hours per week said they had met an online acquaintance offline, and 24 percent of those online at least 12 hours per week reported doing so.

The study did not account for what transpired at the offline meetings. But the authors deemed it an indication that girls were not being careful enough about their online activities.

The Internet as it stands today poses a risk for "young people who may be naive regarding the intentions of others," report the authors. "Since children and youth typically are trusting and curious about online relationships, they are vulnerable to crime and exploitation."