Just looking? - Child pornography
It is not surprising that people kill themselves rather than face charges, or even suspicion, of viewing child pornography. No crime, not even murder, is so vilified in the western world as paedophilia. Being accused, even wrongly, of anything to do with child abuse can ruin people's lives.
British law defines child pornography as "indecent" photographs of children. That can include those of naked, but unmolested, children, depending on the context - if the photos are cut down to emphasise the genitals, for instance, or posted on a website. The law has been tightened in recent years. The 1978 Protection of Children Act targeted those "making" images, meaning photographers, but "making" is now interpreted to include downloading. In 1994, the law was revised to include computer-generated images as well as real photographs. And the maximum sentence for possessing an image was recently increased from six months to five years. So now, if you click on a link to a child pornography site and save an image of a naked child, you could go to jail for five years.
There are two arguments for such harsh penalties for those who look at child pornography: first, that looking leads to doing, and second, that paying for photographs of children being abused creates an incentive to commit such crimes. Proponents of the argument that looking leads to doing say that, in America, 36% of those who watch child pornography are also child molesters. Whether or not that widely-disputed figure is true, it does not prove that watching pornography causes abuse. What about the other 64%? Maybe, for them, looking is a substitute for doing. Interestingly, at the same time as child pornography has become more widely available, so child abuse has declined. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Centre, a research group funded by America's Department of Justice, between 1992 and 2000 the number of substantiated cases of sexual abuse of children in the United States dropped by more than a third. In Britain, child abuse declined by 7% between 1991 and 2001.
The argument that voyeurs are necessarily part of a chain of crime is a stronger one, though technology has weakened it. Some of the images that people are buying are computer-generated, so that making them has harmed nobody. That's why America's Supreme Court last year ruled the country's child-pornography legislation unconstitutional. American law-makers are now working on a new law.
British law should similarly draw a line between real and fake pornography. It should make a distinction between photographs which depict child abuse and those of simple nakedness. And it should distinguish between the curious (who may be revolted by what they have seen) and those who've been at it for years. As the law stands, downloading one image is as much an offence as downloading 10,000. That still, though, leaves the hardest case: the long-term user who pays for pictures of real abuse, but sits there just looking.
Even this die-hard liberal paper regards him as a rare justification for compromising the principle of freedom of expression. The problem is that he isn't just looking. Just as those who buy stolen goods encourage thieves, so those who buy child pornography encourage child rapists. The strongest of principles weaken in the face of such crimes.
source: Article 'Just looking? - Child pornography'; www.economist.com/node/1534834; The Economist; 16 January 2003