Wednesday, June 28, 2006

 

Investigation Prods Internet Companies To Help Fight Online Child Pornography

Chairman Barton Says Legislation is Likely

WASHINGTON – A congressional investigation into online child pornography and exploitation has prompted Google to sever some business ties and prodded Comcast to dramatically increase how long it retains data that could prove crucial to prosecuting predators.

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations’ fourth hearing focused on whether or not major Internet service and content providers are doing enough to protect children online and to help put child predators behind bars.

After committee staff alerted the world’s largest search engine that it was actively selling advertising to Web sites that promote online child pornography, Google recently moved to “blacklist” those and other business partners. Nicole Wong, Google’s associate general counsel and chief privacy officer, called the ads an oversight.

And Comcast revealed that, effective Sept. 1, it will extend from a month to six months the period that it retains Internet addresses. Earlier this year the subcommittee’s investigation revealed that Comcast couldn’t comply with a law enforcement request for an address that was only three days old.

The hearing’s tone was set by Chris Hansen, the Dateline NBC reporter who has led the program’s two-year “To Catch a Predator” series using online decoys to expose middle-aged men seeking to have sexual relations with teenagers.

“Within minutes sometimes, men were trying to start up inappropriate and often obscene conversations,” he said. “There was graphic language, pornographic material and a grooming process all geared at setting up a sexual liaison with a minor.”

Hansen said that NBC’s research has shown that as many as one in three children online have been solicited for sexual acts and that the chat rooms frequented by predators tended to be small, regional Web sites. The five Dateline investigations have identified 130 men, 98 of whom are facing criminal charges.

“We have a long way to go in making the Internet a safe place for our children,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee. “Let’s make it as difficult as possible for these child predators and pedophiles to trade images, set up illegal Web sites and find children on the Internet. Let’s do all we can to disrupt and end this network of criminals on the Internet.”

It was data retention that emerged as the issue of most concern to the committee. With no statutory requirement in place, companies testified that they retain data from as little as Comcast's 31 days to as many as EarthLink’s seven years. Executives expressed concerns about cost and consumer privacy when asked about the prospect of a mandatory nationwide data retention requirement.

“Currently, there is no federal law and no industry standard. This is seriously hindering investigations,” said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. “If investigators can't get the information they need to connect an IP address to a person then too often the case hits a dead end. The perpetrator is not going to be caught, and the child victim is not rescued from a childhood of unfathomable sexual abuse. This is a terrible problem and we need to fix it and fix it now.”

Some companies also suggested that the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, a critical ally of the government in pursuing child predators, be given subpoena authority for data such as IP addresses.

Some lawmakers wondered why the United States hasn’t achieved the same success as the United Kingdom’s Internet Watch Foundation, a partnership formed in 1996 between the government, police and private industry. As a result of aggressive Internet monitoring and reporting tactics, today less than one percent of child pornography content is hosted in the United Kingdom, down from 18 percent in 1997. The same study says that the United States hosts 40 percent of the world’s online child pornography content.

Full committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, suggested the panel would soon pursue comprehensive legislation to crack down on Internet child predators.
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