My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Oprah, Senate Bill 1738, Child Porn, and Pedophiles

When I first learned that Oprah was doing a show on internet predators, I was wary. Her site emphasized a list of rules for kids centered around “don’t talk to strangers” and centered around the language of “Internet sex predators” and linked to Dateline’s very problematic show. I was concerned that she might use her stature to further ongoing myths about online predation. Oprah proved me wrong. Her show wasn’t talking about internet predators in the sense most people do (although her website reinforces myths); her show focused on the connection between internet child pornography and physical molestation in communities.

Her show detailed the very real and very horrific child porn industry and the ways in which the content being produced continues to grow more and more graphic, especially as live videos are made of young children (often the man’s child) being molested and harmed based on requests by child porn consumers. An investigator detailed the ways in which child molesters use child porn to normalize their abuse of children that they know. Oprah repeatedly emphasized that most children know their molesters and that the real risks for molestation are very local – family members, neighbors, community members. The experts she brought in were very knowledgeable and clear about what they didn’t know. For example, the investigator made it clear that we simply don’t know the causality relations of consuming child porn and molestation but that data suggests that there is overlap a decent percentage of the time and that there is no doubt that large numbers of children are harmed in the making of this content. Three teenagers and their parents discussed one of their neighbors who was convicted of drugging and molesting them and at least 5 other of his daughter’s friends. This molester was found through his child porn consumption and investigators found videos of him molesting these girls. Although each of the three girls had their doubts about their friend’s dad, none of them knew that they were being molested while drugged until the videos were found.

The Internet connection is interesting in all of this. The investigator made it very clear that the Internet allows him to trace the networks of potential child porn distributors, but he simply does not have the resources to follow up on all of the leads. Oprah emphasized that only 2% of leads are ever followed. Although a few pot shots are taken at the Internet for enabling distribution, there’s an implicit message that the Internet is actually enabling investigators to get a better handle on the problem. That said, because of lack of resources, they simply cannot do anything about the issue. Oprah leverages this point to drive home an action item: call your Senators to ask them to pass Senate Bill 1738, the “PROTECT Our Children Act.” Unlike other bills meant to stop the Internet, 1738 focuses on providing resources for investigators, FBI, prosecutors, and other elements of law enforcement to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence molesters, partially through the channels of child pornography distribution.

Of course, 1738 is introduced by Biden and Obama (and Clinton) so there are questions of partisanship and I’ve heard rumblings that McCain introduced a similar bill. And there are questions of how much money should be spent. Unfortunately, I can’t really suss out what’s happening in the Senate around this bill. Why hasn’t it been passed? Is it all a matter of politics or are there real issues? Are there things in the bill I should be worried about? I read what I thought was the final text and it seems completely sane to me but maybe I’m missing something.

Still, at the end of the day, I have to commend Oprah for a very real and non-sensational portrait of one aspect of the child molestation issue. I’m also very thankful for her very practical realism about the Internet in this issue. The Internet is undoubtedly allowing easier access to child porn, but it is also allowing investigators to get at guys who show no other markers of their molestation. And I agree with the solution 100%: more funds for law enforcement and much higher penalties for molesters.

[Note: the emphasis on this show was the graphic child porn in which children are clearly abused or harmed in the making of content intended for distribution. There are other classes of child porn which are more complicated and require different prevention mechanisms. For example, porn that is the product of teens and tweens creating nude photos or sex videos of themselves or their friends, whether distributed intentionally or not, is a different class of child porn. The harm in these cases is not often in the making of the content, but the ways in which it gets distributed. Additionally, there are huge issues about how teens and tweens are getting validated or seeking validation by peers through such self-portraiture.]

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