With the fallout from the nationwide swoop on child pornography continuing, the pivotal role of the Internet in circulating this heinous material has been confirmed, suggesting new measures are needed to regulate its content.
The Internet is aiding a massive expansion in the circulation of child pornography. It allows the easy distribution of enormous numbers of sexualised images of children and child sexual abuse. Two million computer images were seized by police in the Australian raids, and collections larger than this have been seized in recent police operations in the US and UK. Child pornography cases have increased 15-fold in Britain since 1988, and a similar increase is evident here.
The Internet allows men (and it is mainly men) to view pornographic images of children for their private sexual arousal. Secretive networks of pedophiles use the Internet to create online communities of people who share and justify their use of child pornography. Child abusers use pornography to recruit children into abuse, and use the abuse to create further pornography.
Tough new laws on child pornography were passed in Australia in August. They impose severe penalties for using the Internet to access or distribute child pornography or to procure children for sexual purposes. But these laws do not stop child pornography from being transmitted onto Australia’s computers.
The Federal Government has been reluctant to adopt a system to regulate the content coming onto our computer screens via Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It relies on filtering by users, a complaints system run by the Australian Broadcasting Authority, and public education by the Internet industry. Labor, too, is reluctant to endorse ISP-based filtering.
This contrasts with Britain, where the largest Internet provider, British Telecom, blocks all child pornography websites under a system begun earlier this year. In the first three weeks, British Telecom blocked 250,000 attempts to access child pornography. However, Britain does not have a national system of mandatory ISP filtering.
Both major parties in Australia have bought the claim made by some in the Internet industry that a national filtering system is not technologically feasible. But the Government’s own review says otherwise. The review of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 in May by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts found that a national system blocking access to blacklists of websites and web addresses certainly is feasible, and would not slow computer response times.
The use of more complex filtering technologies - ones that analyse the text and images on particular web pages - will be feasible in ISP-based filtering by 2006, by which time computer processing power will have increased sufficiently so that these systems can be used nationally.
ISP-based filtering would allow us to regulate the content available to Australian computer-users in a similar way to the system used for television and video. ISPs would filter their content to screen out child pornography and other illegal material. Using a system like the one that some states have for X-rated videos, pornographic material would only be available to adults who choose to receive it by opting out of filtering, and they could see only classified content.
A national filtering system would make it much harder for anyone to access child pornography. It would stop children and adults from being exposed accidentally to pornographic content. And it would limit exposure to the abusive forms of pornography now readily available on the Internet.
Policymakers and police also must tackle the peer-to-peer computer networks that include a growing trade in child pornography. US law enforcement authorities are cracking down on the distribution of child pornography through peer-to-peer file sharing, and Australian authorities should follow suit.
Child pornography is abusive and criminal by definition, and plays an increasingly important role in child abuse. But it is not only child pornography that sexualises children and youth.
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