Let me write a little fiction for a moment:
- John is in his late twenties and an Internet power-user. He uses it for work (he is an independent consultant of some sort), he uses it for games (he is a dab hand at playing on-line, feared amongst the community of Alien vs. Predator 2 gamers) and, being a guy, he likes to trawl through Usenet newsgroups to find pictures of who ever his babe-de-jour is… he is currently rather keen on Britany Spears (my, my, she is aging well).
One night, he visits one of his favourite newsgroups: alt.binaries.celebrities.nude
The list of articles builds, then he casts his eye down the displayed article headers, selecting several posts which indicate they contain images of Britany Spears. He sees one that says ‘Britany Nude’. ‘Hmmm, probably another fake,’ he thinks to himself, ‘no doubt some twit has used PhotoShop to put the divine Miss B’s head on the body of some porn star’..
He clicks ‘extract binaries’ to download the images that people have posted in 120 or so articles and while that chugs away in the background, he launches Excel to catch up on some work he has been putting off.
A few hours later, he goes back to the directory in which his UseNet reader saves extracted binary images and sees a long list of 120 .jpg and .gif pictures. He starts to check them out, keeping the good ones, junking the dross and any duplicates. Then he comes to a file called nudebritney.jpg. He opens it and his lip twitches up in disgust. It is a scared looking little girl, maybe 12 years old, naked and posed suggestively with her legs apart, a web address ending in .ru is written across the bottom of the image.
‘What type of vermin do that to a little girl?’ he growls to the un-hearing screen. With a couple clicks of the mouse, he deletes the offending image and moves on to the next, which turns out to be a picture of the real Britany Spears dancing with a snake at the MTV awards. The angry scowl fades and the smile reappears on his face.
About 2 months later, there is a knock on his door and there is a tax inspector with a warrant. They seize his computer as part of an ongoing tax related dispute… two days later they return, not to charge him with tax evasion but with child pornography offenses! They used an un-delete utility (such as Norton Utilities) to recover supposedly ‘erased’ files and found a file called nudebritany.jpg.
Is this a far fetched scenario? Unfortunately not.
There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about the terrifying approach taken by the FBI towards eradicating child pornography on the Internet:
As one FBI agent put it, “Even my friends can’t believe there’s a federal offense that’s so easy to commit. One click, you’re guilty.”
Possession of child porn is a strict-liability offense, like possession of cocaine. Possessing it, though, does not only mean you have intentionally downloaded and stored the images on your hard drive. Under Title 18 of the US Code, the felony is committed the first time sexually explicit images of minors — defined as anyone under 18 — appear on your screen. If your computer is searched, even files that have been dragged to the trash or cached by your browser software are counted as evidence. Some offenders have been sent to jail for “possessing” images that only a computer-forensics technician can see.
So even if you receive an unsolicited spam mail with attached pictures of child porn and delete the images without opening them, you cannot prove you did not look at them but the state sure as hell can prove they were on your hard drive once!
Much as RICO statutes in the USA were passed to fight against the Mafia but ended up being used against anti-abortion activists and environmental protestors, so too will laws against Internet kiddie porn be used to criminalise people the state just happens to want to criminalise, regardless of whether or not they have the slightest thing to do with the problem of child pornography. This will be hard to stop… after all, who wants to stand up and protest when that risks you being called an ‘apologist for child pornographers’. Nasty.
The Internet gives us many and varied ways to fight the state’s constant attempts to regulate our lives and livelihoods, but is also gives the state new ways to attack us. The state is not your friend.