Democratizing the tools of media production does not always produce pretty results. Today’s New York Times includes a long, sad story, by Kurt Eichenwald, about how broadband connections, cheap webcams, and instant messaging have combined to fuel a further expansion of the online pedophilia market:
Minors, often under the online tutelage of adults, are opening for-pay pornography sites featuring their own images sent onto the Internet by inexpensive Webcams. And they perform from the privacy of home, while parents are nearby, beyond their children’s closed bedroom doors.
The business has created youthful Internet pornography stars – with nicknames like Riotboyy, Miss Honey and Gigglez – whose images are traded online long after their sites have vanished. In this world, adolescents announce schedules of their next masturbation for customers who pay fees for the performance or monthly subscription charges. Eager customers can even buy “private shows,” in which teenagers sexually perform while following real-time instructions.
Depravity and exploitation are nothing new, of course. But it would be wrong to pretend that technology isn’t playing a role here. By making both production and consumption easier and cheaper, not to mention, in many cases, harder to trace, the internet is magnifying the problem, as Eichenwald explains:
Not long ago, the distribution of child pornography in America was a smallish trade, relegated to back rooms and corners where even the proprietors of X-rated bookstores refused to loiter.
By the mid-1980’s, however, technology had transformed the business, with pedophiles going online to communicate anonymously and post images through rudimentary bulletin board systems. As Internet use boomed in the 1990’s, these adults honed their computer skills, finding advanced ways to meet online and swap illegal photos; images once hard to obtain were suddenly available with the click of a mouse.
As the decade drew to a close, according to experts and records of online conversations, these adults began openly fantasizing of the day they would be able to reach out to children directly, through instant messaging and live video, to obtain the pornography they desired. Their dream was realized with the Web camera, which transformed online pornography the way the automobile changed transportation.
As unpleasant as it is to think about these sorts of online markets, any full accounting of the internet’s effects needs to take them into account. Accepting that technology is a cause of the problem might help us find a technological means to temper it.