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[ Explore The Information Superhighway! ] A warning about The Internet [ Explore The Information Superhighway! ]
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The Internet, far more than most other communication media innovations, presents dangers, in the form of potentially harmful temptations, to each user.

My concern here is quite specific: The Internet replicates in a banal and tawdry form, the problem Adam and Eve faced vis-à-vis that tempting but forbidden tree in The Garden of Eden. It is my understanding, as one who almost without exception holds himself back from giving in to the temptation, that The Internet is full of easily accessed material which can turn any one of us into a convicted felon. I am referring here, first of all, to "child pornography", but there are probably varieties of dangerous material on The Internet of which I have not even imagined.

I will focus here, pars pro toto, on this one category: "child pornography". Someone can send me a piece of email, with an innocent sounding title, but which contains pictures which are illegal to possess. If the police discover those pictures on my computer, I can be arrested and convicted of a felony.

Of course, the situation is not quite that bad. If the pictures are part of an email that was sent to me unsolicited, and I QUICKLY DELETE the pictures from my computer, the chances of my being arrested are negligible, unless, e.g., the police sent the pictures to try to entrap me.

There was an article in The New Yorker magazine some time ago (ref. lost) about a journalist who was arrested for possession of such material on his computer, even though he had a valid press pass and was accessing the material for a newspaper article about child pornography on The Internet. At the time, his case had not yet come to trial, so I don't know the outcome. But the point is clear: Even a press pass or other valid research credential is not adequate protection against being arrested if you (or I or whoever) voluntarily access child pornography on The Internet.


I hear you, my reader, perhaps asking: "What's the big deal? There are lots of things any one of us can easily do to become a felon. What's so different about The Internet?"

I propose that what's different about The Internet is the level of temptation, the ease of access and the illusion of privacy. It's "just too easy" to access "compromising" material on The Internet, in the apparent privacy of one's home or wherever one can plug in one's laptop. Who does not have some curiosity about "forbidden things"? If all it takes is a little cyber-searching, or even just clicking a link in a piece of email that's "in your face", why not -- just this once? (An analogy may be how much easier it may be for persons to run up big gambling losses on The Internet, than when they have to fork over real banknotes for real chips in a casino.)

I feel that The Internet is uniquely "enticing" in this way. This is a [but, by no means, the only...] danger I see in The Internet. What is to be done?


Persons and organizations who address "sensitive" issues on their websites (one example is anti-circumcision websites) run the risk of being unjustly but perhaps no less prejudicially rounded up with those whose activities are genuinely nefarious. I certainly am not in any way in favor of child pornography, and I feel that anyone who uses The Internet to entice another person into any situation in which the enticed person gets hurt should be prevented from doing more harm and be appropriately dealt with by the legal system. I would include here not just child molesters but also financial "con artists", etc.

I do not generally favor censorship, and, whether or not certain material should be censored on The Internet, we all know that it may not be possible to do this, due to the ease with which text and pictures can be distributed via email, etc. So I think the best we can do is a two prong approach: If a person who is leading a basically decent life happens to access a few "child pornography" or whatever other kind of forbidden web sites, I think they should not on that account be investigated by the police or otherwise harrassed, etc. A corollary to this is that news reporters and others with valid research credentials should be afforded broad latitude to pursue their investigations into these areas. It seems obvious to me that this particular category of persons -- academics and newspersons -- presents an especially easy situation for the protection of public safety, since they can reasonably be required to pre-register with the police before starting their inquiries, and accept auditing of their activities by "the authorities" as the latter may reasonably see fit to perform.

As for the rest of us "web surfers" (one doesn't hear that phrase so much any more, does one?), I think we must accept that we will, not infrequently, be enticed to look at things on The Internet that potentially can land us in jail. We need to keep "just saying no". At least for persons in places like The United States, where there is a relatively wide range of freedom of expression, the "forbidden fruit" is most likely to be, as I said at the beginning of this page, "banal and tawdry". For persons in more repressive situations, forbidden material may include not only things like "child pornography", but even news that might appear in The New York Times or The New Yorker.

There is one more reason which often leads me to resist looking at such things as pornographic email solicitations: The concern that it might infect my computer with a virus. (Last week, for the first time in my more than 4 years of extensively using of The Internet, I received a piece of email with a virus in it; my antivirus software detected it, so I don't think my computer got infected, but I had so much difficulty figuring out what to do with the contaminated message that I ended up losing my whole email Inbox....) An irony here, of course, is that, if someone is going to try to infect my computer with a virus, the wolf is likely to come in sheep's clothing, not as a naked solicitation to felonious activity....


I am sufficiently frightened that I would not dare let any child pornography get on my computer (even though, as a holder of an earned doctorate in education, I should have the right to put just about any kind of material on my computer for scholarly purposes!). But it's harder to be safe and "clean" than one might prima facie imagine. To cite a couple things that give me cause for concern:

(1) Here is the Subject line from just one piece of unsolicited email I received: "VIRGIN TEENS LIVE = CAMS". Unsolicitated temptations proliferate on the Internet.

(2) A 15Jan03 NYT article (p.A7) reports: "Britain's Hunt for Child Pornography Users Nets Hundreds Besides ['the Who' rock star] Pete Townshend... who says he suspects he was abused as a child, said he had viewed child pornography on the Internet -- but had not downloaded it -- while researching his autobiography and as part of his longtime campaign against child sexual abuse. Mr. Townshend was taken into custody..., questioned and then released without being charged. The police in London seized computers and other material from his house and said they planned to interview him again." Followup (NYT on the Web, 07May02, article by Warren Hoge): "Pete Townshend, the rock guitarist and co-founder of the Who, was given a formal police caution and placed on an official register of sex offenders today for having gained access to a pedophile Web site." Even scholarly research offers no protection.

(3) It seems one has to be careful what one says on the Internet, too -- and not just about child pornography: "A former Global Crossing Ltd. employee was convicted of using a Web site to threaten executives at the now bankrupt telecommunications company... [and] faces up to 30 years in federal prison." Part of the evidence against the defendent was that "he wrote in one posting directed at an employee: 'I will personally send you back to the hell from where you came.'" (NYT on the Web, "Ex - Employee Guilty of Internet Threats", A.P., 05Dec03, Filed at 12:04 p.m. ET) (George Steiner once ended a New Yorker magazine essay about a person he found particularly reprehensible, with the 3 syllable sentence: "Damn the man.")


The United States Department of Homeland Security carries out anti-child pornography investigations "under Operation Predator, an initiative announced in 2003... 'to protect children from pornographers, child prostitution rings, Internet predators, alien smugglers, human traffickers and other criminals.'" (Ralph Blumenthal, "Boy Scouts Official Pleads Guilty on Child Pornography Charge", NYT on the Web, 30Mar05) While this operation presumably accomplishes much good in pursuit of its nominal objectives, one may also ask whether its name may be doubly apt, referring not only to the pursuit of predators, but also to using predatory methods to do so.
 
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Copyright © 2001-2003 Brad McCormick, Ed.D.
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22 March 2006 (2006-03-22 ISO 8601)
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