Peculiarities of Cyberspace

Traces of a crime

In societies with a somewhat developed civilization child pornography is usually a moral stumbling block of the first degree. When children are misused for the enjoyment of adults almost everybody immediately has the feeling that a moral limit is passed. The distribution of child pornographic images via the internet has therefore been the subject of heated discussions for years. Although the —for that matter very small— demand for child pornography remains, there is hardly anyone who dares defend the production and distribution of such visual material in public. This isn’t strange in a country where child pornography is a social taboo and criminally forbidden.

In this article an overview is presented of the ways in which child-pornographic images are distributed via the internet. In Regulation and Self-Regulation of the Internet (in Dutch), and more in particular in Regulation of CyberPorno (in Dutch) an analysis is presented on how these practices can be suppressed.

The American Ministry of Justice employs five criteria to decide whether an image can be considered to be pornographic: “They must focus on the genital area, show unnatural poses, depict children as sex objects, imply that the children are willing to engage in sex, and have a suggestive setting.”

Childporno is not the same as pictures of nude children. Childpornographic material is the evidence of a crime, i.e. sexual abuse of children. The legal definition of childporno in the Netherlands is “a picture of someone who apparently hasn't reached the age of sixteen yet, alone or with someone else in a pose intended to arouse sexual stimulation”. A picture of a pose of a nude child as such doesn't fall under the penalty clause, even if there are persons who may be sexually stimulated due to their inclination. Therefore, the crux of the legal definition of childporno isn't that the picture is primarily made and distributed in order to arouse others sexually, but the protection of the minor against sexual exploitation [the Dutch minister of justice, W. Sorgdrager, Memorandum to article 240b, 20.2.95]. The Dutch legislation concerning this point is extensively described in Regulation of Cyberporno (in Dutch).

Children who are depicted in childpornographic pictures and films are involved in sexual acts and are manipulated by the photographer or filmmaker in such a way that they satisfy a whole range of fantasies. The portrayed children seldom show signs of aversion or disgust; they usually look cheerful or neutral. This reinforces the rationalization and justification processes for the sexual interest in children by adults for a large audience. The children are depicted as 'willing sexual beings'. Yet, every childpornographic representation starts with the sexual abuse of a child. Behind every picture hides an abused child.

No reliable statistics are available of the number of children that are victimized by childporno, nor of the number of productions or consumers [Frenken 1997]. Childpornography is produced behind closed doors. All participants compel each other to secrecy because they can all be blackmailed. For victims of childporno or childprostitution it is usually very difficult to come forward with their story. Not seldom are they threatened by the perpetrators who operate in the scene of organized crime. According to Unicef several millions of children and youngsters are sexually exploited worldwide. According to an estimate of the UN Human Rights Commission in 1998 10 million children are used as sex objects by adults worldwide. Increasingly younger children are involved — starting with babies of a few months old.

Networks of Production and distribution

One thing seems to be clear: the internet plays an increasingly important role in the production and distribution of childporno. Several police investigations show that very large peadophile networks are active on the internet. They are responsible for the distribution of huge quantities of childpornographic photos and films. Many of these photos and films are made by the members of those networks themselves and are exchanged with other members of the network. In addition, there are several web sites on which children are offered for prostitution, and on which information can be found about favorable places of business or holiday-sites for paedophiles. In Honduras and Costa Rica peadophile sex tourism increased with 60 percent in 1999, as a result of such web sites [Bruce Harris, of Casa Alianza, a Central-American organization against sexual abuse of children].

Foreign countries see The Netherlands as a country with loose morals, and as the cradle of the export of drugs and childporno. The question is how large the scale is of childpornography in the Netherlands, where it is produced, and how it is distributed. As a consequence of reports from abroad in 1984 a committee childpornography was introduced in June 1985. Her task was to make an inventory of existing and new information with respect to child pornography in The Netherlands, trace possible domestic distribution channels, and investigate the origin and destination of discovered childporno. In her report of August 1986 the committee reaches the following conclusions:

Pornographic material that is distributed via the internet often exists of old material, it is being cut and pasted and presented anew. Some of the pictures have been cut out of the 'Wehkampgids' (a popular Dutch clothing guide): children in underwear. Other pictures and videos have been taken on naturist or nudist camping sites.

  1. There are no indications for the existence of production of child pornography in The Netherlands, in the sense of making sexual abuse of children with the intention of commercial production of child pornography.

  2. Although child pornography was relatively widely available in The Netherlands until 1984, it is only rarely found now in regions where police and justice do not yet actively operate against this phenomenon.

  3. No indications were found for the existence of an organized distribution-system for commercial childpornography, neither domestic nor for export purposes. However, a relatively substantial quantity of childporno has been sent from The Netherlands to the USA and Germany, even if this shipment is decreasing.

  4. The childporno discovered in the Netherlands exists for the greater part of amateurish material, probably made by sexual abusers for private purposes, which gradually found its way in the commercial circuit.

  5. Determining the place where the pornographic material has been recorded is only occasionally possible. The material found in The Netherlands doesn't make it possible to point out one place as a more or less important place of origin. The main childporno-dealers are still in the United States.

  6. As far as it is possible to establish the geographical location of the production of childporno found in The Netherlands, it appears that most is of Danish and Dutch origin, dating from the time there was legal space for it in these countries.

The committee eventually comes to the conclusion that further investigation of the phenomenon child pornography in The Netherlands is not necessary. But in spite of this seemingly reassuring conclusion new and disturbing developments are going on prompting greater alertness. 

Organized nomadic movements

Adults who molest children are mostly men who are often greatly appreciated in their public contact with children. In local life children run the greatest risk of being threatened by people who exercise authority over them. Family-members, neighbours, friends and others who are known in the family mostly commit sexual abuse of children. The major part of child abuse takes place in the victim's or perpetrator's home. When children are molested, it is most likely not 'the unknown stranger' but 'the familiar acquaintance'.

Offender TypologyThe people who abuse children sexually are usually roughly classified in three categories.

  • The situational perpetrator who has a primary preference for adults, but owing to circumstances has sexual contacts with one or more children.
  • The antisocial perpetrator who has a primary preference for adults, but likes to experiment and has few scruples.
  • The preferential perpetrator who has a primary sexual preference for children. Most consumers of childporno belong to this category. Preferential perpetrators have an almost obsessive tendency to collect material, often also of victims.

Most perpetrators are men, and approximately half of them have been abused in their youth themselves.

On the internet children run the risk of becoming the victim of anonymous strangers. Peadophiles roam through cyberspace looking for childpornographic material and a fresh prey. They usually do this individually, but sometimes also in a group, making use of special networks and demarcated virtual spaces. For child molesters and child-pornographers the internet offers access to a broader market and thus to more potential victims than ever before. They use the internet to network with their own sort. That's why peer-to-peer networks are so popular by peadophiles.

How cohesive is the organization of paedophiles on the internet? Is there a paedophile community using internet to exchange childpornographic material? How do they work? Psychologist Rachel O'Connell (University of Cork, Ireland) has analyzed childpornogroups such as alt.binaries.erotica.pre-teen and [O'Connell 1999]. She concludes that there is a group of dozens of users that uses another newsgroup to distribute childpornographic images on average every two weeks. Most photos are distributed by the same internet users.

Within the paedophile network exists a kind of informal division of labour. There are 'infrastructure-coordinators' who familiarize newcomers with the internet, and in particular with the newsgroups for childpornography. Other people concentrate on reviews of childporno in the newsgroups. Then there are the people who function as lookouts. They see to it that the activities do not take place too long in the same group, in order to reduce the risk of detection. Before the internet-complaint bureaus and the police can come into action against childpornographers in a certain newsgroup, the paedophiles have already moved to another group. The networks of paedophiles on the internet are 'organized nomadic movements'. All people who put material in newsgroups do so anonymously. They use pseudonyms and see to it that their real identity cannot be traced.

Live rape via webcam
The 'Wonderland'-case revealed that webcams are used to broadcast the 'live' rape of a child. “The viewers can make clear, online and on the spot, what the rapist has to do, what they want to see. This way the perpetrator is stirred up on the spot” [PWC 2001]. There is a tendency to record more and more violent acts. The most extreme form of this are the snuff movies, in which children are tortured and eventually killed.

It is assumed that behind this group of paedophiles secret networks are hiding who take photos from the newsgroup and distribute them further by email, or via newsgroups, discussion forums, chatboxes or peer-to-peer networks. The electronic mail, mailing lists, chatrooms —Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and I Seek You (ICQ) — and webcams to a large extent withdraw from publicity. Therefore it cannot be checked how large these networks are. Presumably they are much larger than the 'public' networks. In any case the internet has lead to a far-reaching internationalization of childporno.

Birds of prey on the lurk

Dangerous temptations
Child porno on the internet is more than collecting and distributing obscene material. More and more it turns out that paedophiles try to arrange meetings with children via the internet. Paedophiles glide as birds of prey over the internet in search of children — the Americans call this 'hawking'. First they browse around chatboxes and newsgroups where children are to be expected. Next they try to have a chat with them in a chatbox. And finally they try to get the child to make a date with them. In this way several children are picked up from the internet.

Youngsters as perpetrators
Not only adults sexually harass children. In Australia, at a rough estimate, nearly half the victims are harassed by (elder) youngsters. Youngsters harass children in a similar way as paedophile elders do. They make use of pornographic images, create secrecy and guilt as weapons for manipulation, and so on.

Step by step paedophiles try to gain a child's trust and develop regular contact. This process begins with discussing subjects children are interested in. Paedophiles are good at identifying and communicating with vulnerable children. They give the impression that they care for the child and understand their children's world. They are skilful at playing the role of 'confidant' for young people. They use this trust to manipulate the child in such a way that it backs away from family and friends. They exploit the desires, insecurities and fears of young people in order to make themselves lovable to them.

Paedophiles try to talk extensively with their potential victims about who they are, where they live, which school they attend and what their hobbies are. In that way they hope to tempt the children to continue their chats in exclusive conversations that cannot be observed by others (via email, IRC, ICQ or webcam). The conclusion of this phase is an arrangement to meet each other somewhere.

Children between hope and fear
In June 2000 a research project was carried out in England indicating that one-third of the British parents consider the internet as much more corrupting than television or films. The research was done by the NOP (National Opinion Poll), by order of Symantec, a company specialized in computer-safety.

On average half the time children are online there is no parental supervision. Still parents worry about what their children are up to on the internet. They believe the internet has a much more dangerous influence on the moral wellbeing of their children than television and film. Their hair stands on end at the prospect that their children watch 'unwanted contents'. Earlier research (by NUA Internet Surveys) already showed that one-third of the children had found contents on the internet which shocked them or embarrassed them, whereas more than half describes the contents as 'rude'.

"As a parent myself, I understand the concerns regarding children accessing the Internet. The sad thing is that there are unsavoury characters out there that use the Internet for illegal purposes, whether it be hacking into personal computers, publishing undesirable content or using seemingly innocuous Web site addresses for blatantly insalubrious activities" [Aled Miles, Symantec's UK managing director].

Young women vulnerable in chatrooms
This is the title of a report that Ipsos-Reid wrote in January 2001 about her research into the experiences of young women from 16 countries. Her research not only showed that approximately 70% of the internet users under 24 regularly use chatrooms, but also that a quarter of the young female internet users say they have become afraid or outraged because of things that have been said to them during chatroom sessions.
Although nearly half of the youngsters in chatrooms make email-contact with people they meet there for the first time, most teenagers do not let themselves be talked into a local meeting with someone they have met online.
Youngsters become increasingly aware of the dangers they run on the internet. This is shown in an English research project of the NOP Research Group of July 2001. A growing number of youngsters are not willing to supply their email address or home address on the internet. However, parents and schools have an important task in informing children on the risks they run on or via the internet.

The children from New Zealand apparently run even more risks with 'net-beasts of prey' than English and American youngsters. A quarter of the female teenagers from New Zealand feel threatened by net-villains, in comparison with one-fifth of the English and American youngsters who claim they have been approached by paedophiles online. One out of three New Zealand girls between 11 and 19 years old had had a local meeting with someone she had met in a chatbox. 32% had gone to their date alone, whereas nearly half of them had not informed a parent or adult about their plans. The department of psychology of the University of Auckland carried out the research. 347 women between 11 and 19 years old, who had visited the site, were questioned [source].

The report of the Internet Crime Forum (ICF) concludes that "about 20% of the children who use chatrooms on the internet have been approached by paedophiles and other unwished-for persons while they were online". A similar survey in the USA: Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth [June 2000] shows that approximately one-fifth of the youngsters between 10 and 17 had encountered an undesired invitation or approach via the internet.

The New Zealand study shows that 60% of the investigated children had given their email address or telephone number to someone they had met online. Only half of them said they would tell their parents in case they received online threats from paedophiles.

This picture is confirmed by a research project among American girls between 13 and 18 years of age. The project was carried out in 2001 by The Girl Scouts of the USA. It shows that most girls consider themselves the smartest computerusers at home. Most girls appear to hide quite a lot from their parents: 30% claims they have been sexually harassed on the internet (ranging from asking about their bra size to sending nude pictures of men), but only 7% told their parents. The reason for this is fear of being 'unplugged'.

Trash chatting, floods of abuse, pestering-mails en sexual intimidation
In 2002 the Dutch consumers' organization for children, Kinderconsument published their own sampling among 1300 youngsters from 10 to 13 years old. The results were rather shocking. Between 18 and 44% of the children (depending on the chatbox) appeared to be bothered by floods of abuse and sexual intimidation in popular chatboxes, such as TMG, Foxkids, Surfkids, and The research also shows that children are completely fed up with it. Those annoying men who turn out to be no child at all. Those floods of abuse with words that I don't even know. Those filthy pornopictures that are sent to you unasked-for. And those invitations of unfamiliar people who want to meet you as soon as possible.

In June 2003 the magazine for the young Kidsweek published a sampling among 1,000 youngsters. This research indicated that 2 out of 10 chatters are bothered by pestering and cursing in a chatbox. One out of 10 is involved in sexual insinuations. Their closed chatbox is regularly burgled and youngsters are stalked by people they met in the chatbox. Only few had to do with paedophiles and were threatened with pestering-mails. The research also indicated that half of the youngsters pretend to be older than they really are.

The undesired behavior with which youngsters are confronted on the internat can be summarized in three p's: porno, pestering and paedo.

Girls experience emotionally complex situations on the internet, but don't tell their parents about it. They think they know what safe and unsafe internet behavior is and that they have sufficient 'common sense'. But the parental involvement is usually limited to 'don'ts' such as: 'don't talk to strange men' and 'don't give them any personal information'. A small minority of these girls sticks to these rules, a large majority doesn't. Most girls say they can easily get round these parental rules. They know how to chat secretly, read their parents' email and keep up a cyber-love-affair.

The girls say they do want to talk about their virtual life with their parents, but that this is impossible, unless parents know what they are talking about. Girls say they know what they do, but they do remain emotionally vulnerable teenagers. They know there are dangers and they try to avoid them. But once they chat with someone for a longer period of time and build up a relationship, they start to trust him. Everything they have learnt about 'dangers' melts away. Fortunately, it seldom occurs that girls are tempted to personal meetings with paedophiles. Yet, it does happen. Via the internet girls experience that they, as vulnerable children, are 'growing into adulthood'. This might be a starting point for parents who want to communicate with their children about their virtual experiences as well. The more parents know about the hope and fears of their children, the less chance child-seductors get to exploit them.

In Regulation of CyberPorno an analysis is presented of how these threats and risks for children can be minimized.


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