The dark markets
December 19, 2005
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.
"Accepting that technology is a cause of the problem might help us find a technological means to temper it."
Isn't this the old debate about a technological solution to a solution problem, in reverse?
What was the technological means to temper the cause of the problem when the technology innovation was advances in film or video?
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 19, 2005 04:36 PM
>> Accepting that technology is a cause of the problem might help us find a technological means to temper it.
This sounds like the sort of half-thought-out homily that Hollywood uses to convince gullible Congresscritters to support DRM legislation.
Let's look for *legal* means to address illegal, predatory behavior, and not pretend we can hit the "rewind" switch on technology, thanks very much. Note that it appears the predators in this story either have already been brought to justice, or are peeing in their pants wondering if they will be traced through their credit card accounts.
Posted by: Doug Lay at December 19, 2005 04:53 PM
Nick, keep on harping on this message. It is shameful we just accept it...as we get excited with web 2.0, we ought to clean up the nasty parts of web 1.0 - not just smut.
see a post I wrote a few weeks ago
the wild, wild web
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 19, 2005 05:11 PM
Both Doug and Seth suggest a "not us" attitude about what the technology industry can do... Everything has "unintended consequences" you cannot dream of during product development - and I know what attorneys recommend from a liability management perspective - may be there is no "auto shut off" technology we can develop for the web cams used for such purposes, but as an industry we can help train police forces on the murky ways of the web, reason with privacy advocates etc.
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 20, 2005 09:22 AM
>> but as an industry we can help train police forces on the murky ways of the web, reason with privacy advocates etc.
Nothing wrong with that, within limits (where does Cisco's cooperation with the Chinese authorities fall on the acceptability spectrum?). But training and reasoning aren't exactly technological fixes. What I object to is the glib idea that "technology got us into this mess, so technology must be able to get us out." That's the kind of hogwash that leads to stuff like this:
A smart guy like Mr. Carr should - and probably does - know better.
Posted by: Doug Lay at December 20, 2005 11:18 AM
Jeez, Doug, I suggest that maybe some technology innovator could help with the problem, and you accuse me of advocating heavy-handed regulation. Heavy-handed regulation is more likely to result from reactionary attitudes like yours, I'd think.
Posted by: Nick at December 20, 2005 12:31 PM
Mr. Carr, you pronounce the Internet complicit in the problem as follows:
"By making both production and consumption easier and cheaper, not to mention, in many cases, harder to trace, the internet is magnifying the problem.."
So to fix the problem, it seems the solution would involve making either production or consumption:
b) more expensive
c) easier to trace
I don't associate any of the above at all with technological breakthroughs, with the possible exception of (c). I associate them with regulation. Of course regulation isn't always bad - I would love to see exploitation of minors regulated out of existence. But when you focus regulatory efforts on technology instead of behavior, my strong feeling is that you'll usually end up with bad laws that impede innovation.
Posted by: Doug Lay at December 20, 2005 01:46 PM
Doug - how about IP address tracking, surveillance, card card pattern recognition...there are plenty of technologies already available but not consistently to all enforcement agencies. In addition, my non-technical suggestions from a tech savvy audience - us - would go a long way
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 20, 2005 03:23 PM
Regarding: "I suggest that maybe some technology innovator could help with the problem ..."
Seriously - *HOW*. The reason there's such a reaction is that there's a long history of articles which basically do read, "IT'S AWFUL, it's ABSOLUTELY H.O.R.R.I.B.L.E, and Something Must Be Done"
You're not the first person to write about this. You're by far not the most powerful person.
Why not assume that technologists hate child molestation as much as anyone, and if there was something special we could do against it, we'd do it. But Internet technologists have about as much ability to affect molestors as do film technologists or video technologists.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 20, 2005 03:24 PM
Seth, You may be right that ultimately technologists wouldn't be able to anything about the problem, but you're wrong about the comparison to video and DVD. In those cases, the technologists have no influence over distribution and access. On the web, it's the internet itself that is the medium of distribution of access, and as we've seen technologists can be very creative when it comes to manipulating internet access and distribution.
There's an interesting article in the Financial Times today about Wayne Rosso, former head of Grokster, now head of Mashboxx. He talks about how his plans, in conjunction with record labels, to embed intelligence in the internet to regulate the distribution of copyrighted music rather than embed DRM in the music files themselves. As he colorfully puts it: "Then you don't have to worry about Steve Jobs grabbing you by the balls or Bill Gates grabbing you by the balls. You can sell MP3s." That's the spirit we need here, too. I think you and Doug are a little too defeatist.
Posted by: Nick at December 20, 2005 04:47 PM
actually Seth, internet technologists are different from film or video technologies because we have now have IP addresses, more tracking technologies, we pay electronically on the weband those can be tracked etc...there are many more electronic finger prints than ever before, more surveillance technologies. But we are also more protective about privacy then we were a decade ago. We are giving Bush shit about domestic spying even though he says it is for national security reasons - do you think we have the backbone to do it for much smaller (supposedly less dangerous) offenders?
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 20, 2005 07:24 PM
Nick, the point is that creators of a technology don't have fine-tuned control over what end-users do with it. One could reverse the example and say "The Internet is merely used for distribution, while the camera is used for creation. We've seen how technologists can be very creative when it comes to manipulating camera lenses and film qualities."
That's the sort of path which leads to snake-oil programs meant to "detect pornography".
Regarding: "He talks about how his plans, in conjunction with record labels, to embed intelligence in the internet to regulate the distribution of copyrighted music" - what in the world does this even mean? Moreover, if he's talking about re-engineering the Internet to have some sort of Broadcast Flag - which is absurd - that wouldn't have anything to do with detecting
illegal material that users create *themselves*
Vinnie, are you seriously suggesting we set up secret *wide-ranging warrantless* surveillance? That's what in the news - surveillance can already be done now with a warrant from a court.
Is it asking too much to consider that there might not be a simple technological solution to a complex social problem? Indeed, look at the battles over copyright - it involves extrmely heavy regulation.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 22, 2005 03:27 PM
Seth, no different that in the physical world. Due process and limits on what cops can do. But I would suggest cops (even the feds) know a lot more about how to track bad guys in the physical world than in the web world. Why not arm them with better technology? You are right - and not sure we disagree - it is not a tech solution alone. It involves legal, political and other solutions as well. But Nick's point was us technologists are apathetic about it. Many of us do not even acknowldge it as a problem.
Posted by: Vinnie Mirchandani at December 22, 2005 06:38 PM
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