Internet

The Growing Cancer of Child Sexual Exploitation on the Web

Everyone has heard stories about predators lurking online, searching for young children on whom to prey. The sorry truth is that the problem is growing increasingly severe. Fingers are pointing in every direction; no one really knows where to place the blame.

“It’s not windows and cellar doors that sexual predators look for. It’s your child’s computer screen,” reads an ad by the Advertising Council, a private nonprofit organization that produces public service announcement campaigns to raise awareness and inspire action.

Realizing the importance of alerting parents, the Ad Council, along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in April partnered withMySpace.com to promote online safety by running a series of public service announcements.

“Our goal of working with MySpace is to help bring awareness to the issue of online enticement and help keep children safer online,” John Shehan, CyberTipline program manager for the NCMEC, told TechNewsWorld.

The announcements “were designed to educate parents and guardians about measures they can take to better protect their children online, and to educate teens on how to be smart and maintain safe online relationships.”

Reporting Abuse

The center has similar relationships with many Internet Service Providers, including large portals such as AOL, Yahoo and MSN. Currently, 215 electronic service providers regularly report incidents of child sexual exploitation to the CyberTipline on a weekly basis.

These reports are regarding child sexual predators and exploitative situations that law enforcement did not previously know about. Companies are required to provide them in compliance with the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act, Shehan said.

In 2005, the CyberTipline received notice of a grand total of 70,737 incidents. The bulk came from 64,221 incidents of child pornography, including possession, manufacture and distribution.

There were also 2,669 reported incidents of online enticement of children for sexual acts, 611 for unsolicited obscene material sent to a child, 841 misleading domain names, 1,640 reports of child sexual molestation by other than family members, 553 of child prostitution and 202 for child sex tourism. This practice involves adults traveling to foreign countries to engage in sexual activity with children. It is estimated to draw more than one million children into the sex trade each year, especially in developing countries.

As if the numbers weren’t alarming enough, one of the people responsible for protecting children was recently accused of being a predator himself.

A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department was put on unpaid leave after being charged on April 4 with “preying on a child” through online sexual conversations with an undercover detective who was posing as a 14-year-old girl.

The 55-year-old man, Brian J. Doyle, started having explicit online conversations with someone he believed was a teen beginning March 14, according to authorities. He allegedly sent her pornographic movie clips and nonsexual photos of himself.

One of the photos, released by the Polk County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department, which filed the charges, shows him in what appears to be DHS headquarters wearing a Homeland Security pin on his lapel, according to the Associated Press.

When authorities arrested him, he was online with the undercover “teen,” according to reports.

Steps Toward Protection

The incident shocked communities across the nation, sparking law enforcement agencies to point fingers at companies providing open forums as chances to meet new friends.

Coincidently, MySpace announced its new advertising partnership to promote online safety by educating users about the potential dangers of sexual predators within a week. To ensure its commitment even further, the company named Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, currently Microsoft’s director of security outreach and child safe computing, to become its chief security officer effective May 1.

“MySpace has always been and will remain committed to online user safety,” Dani Dudeck, a spokesperson for MySpace.com, told TechNewsWorld. “Since the inception of the site in January 2004, the company has devoted extensive resources towards these important issues and has created a deep arsenal of programs and services deployed on the site.”

Additionally, MySpace devotes roughly one-third of its workforce — about 100 people — to “protecting the safety of its online members,” she said.

Regardless of individual efforts, collaboration seems to be the next wave of combat. Shehan and Dudeck advocate working with law enforcement, schools, parents and the teens themselves to prevent online abuse before it happens and put predators behind bars.

Part 2: Taking Off Blinders to the Threat of Online Sexual Predators

Part 3: Arming Kids Against Sexual Predators on the Net

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