Internet Child Pornography Essay

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The Internet provides tremendous opportunities for gathering information. However, it also can be a vehicle for information that is based in criminal sexual materials and activities. Modern society has struggled with regulating many areas of the Internet, particularly criminal behavior. It has been reported that pornography in the United States generates over $13 billion dollars annually. The Internet alone is believed to have over 4 million pornographic Web sites. Pornographic images of children reportedly have increased 1,500 percent since 1988, with more than 200 pornographic images of children being uploaded to the Internet on a daily basis and more than 1 million images available on the Internet at any given time. The strong desire to protect children has focused a lot of attention on Internet child pornography. As a result, ethical questions have been raised concerning how child pornography should be defined, censored, and regulated.

Exploiting Children Through Pornography

The use of children as sexual objects is not new. Twenty-first century inventions like the camera have made sexual exploitation of children easier and more accessible to criminals than previous methods, such as drawings or erotic literature. Although child pornography has always been viewed as a distasteful and restricted activity, it nonetheless has been an available form of sexual exploitation over the years, albeit one that was covert, stigmatized, and difficult to acquire.

Censorship has existed in the United States since colonial times. Changes to censorship in the 1960s, due in part to changes in measuring the demographics of viewing audiences, created more relaxed censorship standards in some ways. One unintentional result was an increase in the availability of child pornography, with some reports estimating that as many as 250 child pornography publications (primarily magazines) were available in Europe and the United States by the late 1970s. By 1977, only two states had laws that addressed the use of minors in pornographic material.

The creation of the Internet in the 1980s provided another issue pertaining to censorship. The Internet has served as yet another path for individuals to produce, disseminate, share, and receive various forms of child pornography. Child pornography generates more than $3 billion dollars each year. The Internet has heightened the problem of child pornography simply by being a medium in which the vast amount of material and the ease of accessibility lends itself to making child pornography instantly available through millions of worldwide Internet sites. But estimating the extent of the problem is difficult since many sites exist only for a short period of time before they are shut down and move to the hidden underground of the Internet.

Individuals can access different types of sexualized material involving children while remaining secretive, anonymous, and thousands of miles from the actual distributive source of the material. The Internet has also changed the scope of the child pornography problem, thereby requiring national and international advances in jurisdictional investigations, control, and punishments for these types of criminal offenses. Law enforcement agencies worldwide grapple with the production, distribution, and downloading of pornographic images of children.

While the sexual exploitation of children is not new, the concept of protecting children from sexual exploitation is a relatively modern undertaking. The punishments for crimes involving sexual acts against a minor became the congressional focus in the 1977 Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act. This act was the first federal law that dealt specifically with child pornography and paved the way to creating punishments for large distributors of pornographic material involving children. Following suit, the 1984 Child Protection Act expanded the age of a minor under child pornography legislation up to the age of 18 and legitimized the distinction between obscene material and child pornography. In 1986, Congress created two more acts—the Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography Act and the Child Abuse Victims’ Rights Act—both of which not only increased the penalties for repeat offenders, but also gave victims the chance for civil remedies. The Sentencing Reform Act in 1987 continued to address the scope and penalties for child pornography offenses when it established sentencing guidelines for offenses involving the production, transport, distribution, and receiving of child pornography materials. In 1988, the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act made it illegal to use a computer to display or advertise child pornography, and in 1996 the definition of child pornography was expanded to include any images that were or appeared to be of children.

Ethical Issues

Providing a universal definition for pornography has always been problematic and similar issues surround some definitions pertaining to child pornography. Legal and nonlegal definitions of children and child pornography can vary among jurisdictions. For example, the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography uses a broad definition that includes pornographic material of children that is created and illustrated “by whatever means.” Interpol uses a similarly broad definition. For most U.S. federal legal situations, a child is defined as any person under the age of 18, and child pornography usually has a basic definition that includes any record of a sexual activity involving a minor. “Records” of sexual activity can involve the use of photographs, videos, and audio recordings, and the images themselves can vary in the levels of graphic content that they display—anything from innocent, nonsexualized pictures that originate from legitimate sources to sadistic pictures of children being subjected to pain or torture. Defining child pornography material, then, may also depend on how it was produced and how it was used.

More recent questions have asked: should current definitions include computer-generated images of children who appear to be minors but are not real children? For some, the use of computer-generated images (CGIs) or “virtual” pictures depicting children in a sexual manner could be construed as a 21st-century technological form of child pornography. Others argue that CGIs that are created solely through computer-made cartoons, drawings, or paintings do not involve real children and, therefore, do not produce any direct harm to a child. These virtual forms of child pornography, then, raise the ethical questions of whether or not the law has the right to censor or regulate fantasies or whether such a regulation would infringe on privacies or freedoms of expression.

While U.S. federal legislation has attempted to expand the scope of child pornography laws to include computer-generated images as well as individuals who appear to be minors (or are made to look young), federal courts have rejected these provisions thus far. But such questions lend themselves to potential definitional, moral, and ethical problems surrounding child pornography and the Internet.

The unique structure of the Internet is such that its national and international borders require communication and cooperation among many different governmental agencies, levels, and jurisdictions. While jurisdictions typically refer to a physical location, such a place-based definition can create problems when it comes to the Internet, where space and places are defined and viewed differently.

In addition to jurisdictional issues, the Internet faces legal and administrative differences over who regulates the Internet, to what extent, and what freedoms and rights should be sacrificed or enforced to promote the efforts of controlling criminal activity such as child pornography. Questions of who defines, investigates, tracks, apprehends, and prosecutes child pornography on the Internet—specially when it is not clear where the material has originated or by whom—pose logistical, ethical, and legal problems for the entities involved. Cultural issues across international boundaries may also add ethical questions—particularly if the offenses involve an international jurisdiction that has a more permissive stance and more lenient laws toward child pornography.

Internet-based businesses may also find themselves facing ethical issues if their online commercial access inadvertently has an avenue for child pornography to be placed or used on their sites. Carefully monitored and enforced industry terms of service requirements may be needed to regulate online behavior that has the potential to become an avenue for child pornography.


  1. Casanova, Manual F., Diane Solursh, Lionel Solursh, Emil Roy, and Lance Thigpen. “History of Child Porn on the Internet.” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, v.25/4 (2000). (Accessed March 2013).
  2. Eneman, Marie, Alisdair Gillespie, and Bernd Carsten Stahl. “Criminalizing Fantasies: The Regulation of Virtual Child Pornography.” 17th European Conference on Information Systems (2010). (Accessed March 2013).
  3. King, Peter J. “No Plaything: Ethical Issues Concerning Child Pornography.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, v.11/3 (2008). (Accessed March 2013).
  4. Ray, J. V., E. R. Kimonis, and C. Donoghue. “Legal, Ethical, and Methodological Considerations in the Internet-Based Study of Child Pornography Offenders.” Behavioral Science and the Law, v.28 (2010).
  5. Wortley, Richard and Stephen Smallbone. “The Problem of Internet Child Pornography.” Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, Guide No. 41 (2006). (Accessed March 2013).

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