Web site trend tests limits of child porn

Explicit images show partially clothed models

August 20, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The model is shown rising out of a bubble bath, suds dripping from her body. Her tight panties and skimpy top are soaked and revealing. She gazes at the viewer, her face showing a wisp of a smile that seems to have been coaxed from off-camera.

In just over seven months, the model has become an online phenomenon. She has thousands of fans from around the world who pay as much as $30 a month to see images of her. New photographs of her -- many clearly intended to be erotic, all supposedly taken that week -- are posted online every Friday for her growing legions of admirers.

The model's online name is Sparkle. She is -- at most -- 9 years old.

Sparkle is one of hundreds of children being photographed by adults, part of what appears to be the latest trend in online child exploitation: Web sites for pedophiles offering explicit, sexualized images of children who are covered by bits of clothing -- all in the questionable hope of allowing producers, distributors and customers to avoid child pornography charges.

In recent months, investigations of child pornography -- by the Justice Department, state and local law enforcement and Congress -- have contributed to shutdowns of some of the most sexually explicit Internet sites.

But they have been replaced by a growing number of so-called model sites, Internet locations that offer scores of original photographs of scantily clad children like Sparkle, often posed in ways requested by subscribers.

More than 200 of the sites have been found by The New York Times through online advertising aimed at pedophiles, and a majority focus mostly on one child. Almost all the children appear to be between the ages of 2 and 12.

Based on descriptions in online customer forums and in Web pages showing image samples, the children are photographed by people who have frequent access to them.

Based on the images and wording from online advertisements, the sites show toddlers wearing tight thongs, and slightly older children posing evocatively while wearing makeup and feather boas.

There is even a site that offers images of girls and boys who appear to be 5 or 6 years old, wearing just diapers.

In online conversations observed by The Times over four months, pedophiles portrayed model sites as the last of a shrinking number of Internet locations for sexual images of minors.

"I considered the authors of those sites as leaders of a rebellion movement for child porn," a man calling himself Heartfallen wrote in an online site for pedophiles, discussing the decline in the number of sites featuring images of naked minors. "They've vanished. There is much less freedom on the Internet now. We still have a rebellion made up of non-nude child modeling sites. But are they going to suffer the same fate as their predecessors?"

While adult pornography has some First Amendment protections, there are no such protections for child pornography.

Still, some experts have expressed discomfort, in general, at criminalizing clothed pictures of minors.

"This is a difficult area," said Michael A. Bamberger, a First Amendment specialist at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, based in New York. "The whole history of the exception from First Amendment protections for child pornography is based on the harm to the child. But there is in my view a free speech issue with respect to designating photographs of persons under the age of 18 who are clothed as child pornography."

But Bamberger expressed uncertainty about whether his concerns applied when told details of the model sites found by The Times. "To me, it sounds as if you are really talking about nude equivalents, almost like cellophane clothing, and that's not clothing at all."

A New York Times investigation last year disclosed a new frontier in child pornography, in which minors used computer video Webcams to perform on the Internet in exchange for gifts and money. That article, published in December, resulted in a government crackdown, including arrests and the shutdown of major Webcam pornography sites.

The Times' investigation opened a window into an online subculture of pedophiles. This story is a further look into that world and the businesses that have developed to serve it.

Covering this story raised legal issues. U.S. law makes it a crime to purchase, download or view child pornography, unless the images are promptly reported to authorities and no images are copied or retained. The Times complied with the law, disclosing what it found to appropriate authorities.

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