For many of us (geeks excepted), the Internet is big and mysterious and, for the most part, unknowable. It can be a very scary place. We don't have much difficulty imagining wicked pedophiles infiltrating chat rooms where young girls and boys hang out. We can see these cyberpredators patiently gaining the innocent trust of their victims and then luring them into sexually exploitative or even fatal meetings. It is easy to conjure up the precise details of Internet dangers to our children, especially with the help of organizations created to warn us about such things. We have learned to fear Internet pirates, poised to steal our money or our privacy; it's natural enough that we should believe in electronic kidnappers and do whatever is necessary to protect our children from them.
And we have, on the local and, most emphatically, on a national level. In 1994, after the alleged abduction by way of the Internet of 10-year-old Bruce Burdinski in Maryland, the FBI announced that it would become proactive in regulating Internet traffic in images and bodies. A year later, the agency launched "Innocent Images," a program designed to train law enforcement officials to imitate young girls and boys in chat rooms in an attempt to catch electronic stalkers. The idea was to lure the would-be molesters out of hiding and into meetings -- and then arrest them.
According to the FBI's Peter Gullotta, the program has been a great success, resulting in 515 arrests and 439 convictions since 1995. (Former Infoseek executive Patrick Naughton, sentenced to five years' probation earlier this month, was arrested in an Innocent Images sting operation.) In 10 division offices across the country (the headquarters is in Baltimore), the FBI now trains specially deputized workers with the support of a special congressional grant of $10 million. Innocent Images initiated 700 investigations in fiscal 1998 and 1,500 the next year.
Gullotta carefully notes that the increase in cases, some of which may be based on nothing more than an anonymous tip, doesn't indicate a huge increase in the number of pedophiles but simply reflects a greater number of "efforts to catch them." He does, however, express unambiguous confidence that the people being caught are indeed predators and that the Innocent Images program is effectively addressing a genuine menace.
The problem is that there is little evidence that we are genuinely menaced. Statistics are scarce, anecdotes easy to come by. Arrests have been made -- but for abduction? Assault? Rape? Sexual molestation? Well, no. The Burdinski case that inspired the Innocent Images program was never brought to court or solved, so we simply do not know what happened: The boy was never found. He may indeed have been abducted by way of a chat room, but we don't know that.
Gullotta says the FBI has no figures on how many children are abducted or met by way of chat rooms. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children doesn't have any figures either, though it does have a CyberTipline, where concerned citizens can call in suspicious things they spot on the Internet: child pornography, prostitution, child-sex tourism, molestation and enticement.
The CyberTipline has recorded 1,848 tips concerning enticement in the past two years, but that's only 12 percent of the total tips taken by the service, and no one knows how many of those complaints are duplicates, mistakes or malicious calls meant to do harm to enemies.
It would seem that at this point, invested as we are in this crisis, we are simply trusting our instincts -- our worst fears -- which is something we have done before, particularly in the area of child sexual safety. In the past decade or so, we have gone on a lot of crusades in the name of protecting our children from sexual predators: We have raided preschools, the dens of witches and our own memories. We have managed to make a number of arrests too, very often of innocent people, and have disrupted lives, scared kids and separated them from parents.
But we haven't seemed to learn that our ability to convince ourselves that a threat exists is no guarantee that there is one; our ability to make arrests does not mean crimes have been committed; our determination to protect our children does not mean we are doing so. Satanic ritual abuse, we recall, did not exist at all -- nowhere, not once, not to anybody: So says the FBI.
This is not to say that Internet predators do not exist or that the Innocent Images program is not a good idea. But a few compelling questions might not be misplaced in an atmosphere of panic, questions like: What evidence is there that children have been lured into meetings by Internet predators? How large is this problem, if indeed it is a problem? Are we wise to devote our resources to this problem rather than to others? Can we be sure we are not creating the crime, luring people out of hiding and arresting them for their fantasies? Is there something amiss in the idea of a crime against a child that involves no child, only trained imposters? (Naughton argued, through his lawyer, that he, like so many others, was involved in role-playing on the Net, fully aware that his cyberpals might not be who they said they were.)
We cannot prove that crimes are being committed, but surely the burden of proof should be on those inaugurating programs to wipe out the menace. It should not be enough that the menace is horrifying or even horrifyingly convincing: That may simply mean that the image fits current cultural mythology, a mythology that, in this area, may be driven partly by panic.
The FBI points to the number of people arrested as unambiguous evidence both of the success of the Innocent Images program and of the magnitude of the problem: We wouldn't be catching them if they weren't there. This seems altogether logical, but it may also be altogether circular. Certainly Innocent Images agents have nabbed people who have crossed state lines to meet their chatmates and, presumably, engage in illegal sexual activities with them. There is, for most people, strong presumptive support for the program right there.
Maybe so, but we still ought to ask certain skeptical questions, just so they get asked. Remember the McMartin Preschool. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to be certain we are not assuming at the start that there is a problem without any evidence that one exists, apart, perhaps, from our need to imagine one.
We ought to note that the discourse surrounding this problem follows the predictable path of panic talk. First of all, we are told that this problem is not just any problem, but that it is menacing, sneaky, "widespread and growing." "Many parents," says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "have a false sense of security regarding the risks to their children in cyberspace." And FBI Director Louis Freeh concurs, telling Congress that "no greater danger" for children exists in computerland.
Cyberspace is portrayed as a dark sea filled with piranhas: Agent Gullotta gleefully says, "It's like fishing in a pond full of hungry fish. Every time you put a line with live bait in there, you're going to get one." This kind of talk can become reckless and can cause such alarm in good and caring people that they act to protect their children and ask questions later -- or not at all.
We ought to ask, for instance, whether those who are arrested for the crime of crossing a state line to pursue sex with a minor would have done so without this inducement. Gullotta gives the following typical profile for those arrested: A white male, age 25-45, intelligence and income above average, with no previous record in this area (or, often, any other).
When asked about the "no previous record" issue, Gullotta says that those caught have either been very "lucky" previously or, if this is their first venture, very "unlucky." The FBI claims that it is digging out those dangerous, innocent-looking "people next door" who are all the more lethal because they do not seem to be the type to do such a thing and have never done it before.
Maybe, but it is also possible that the FBI is helping create the crimes it is then "solving." Psychologist David Greenfield argues (in a ZDNet News essay by Lisa M. Bowman) that "these people may have been cajoled into acting out in ways they normally wouldn't." We cannot know that, and it will seem to many of us that the high conviction rate for crossing state lines to meet underage chat room companions (as high as 99 percent, Gullotta says) renders such questions moot.
Perhaps, but we should at least wonder about a conviction rate based almost entirely on plea bargains and on the assumption that the people going to these meetings weren't lured there. Very few cases go to trial, which, for the FBI, is evidence of guilt. "The Internet brings these guys out; it's that simple," says FBI agent Randy Aden. They are guilty, know it and flinch from having their filthy talk read out to juries, he assumes.
Another possibility is that those nabbed, wanting to minimize exposure and thus avoid a trial, are very eager candidates for plea bargains. They admit to the lesser charge (going to the meeting) in return for having weightier charges (possession, endangerment) dropped. Such was the case with Naughton, who faced up to 35 years in prison if convicted. The deal he accepted -- a guilty plea to possession of child pornography, which resulted in a sentence of five years of probation and a $20,000 fine -- gave him an end to the battle.
Without knowing how great a threat is posed by Internet sex predators, it is downright bizarre that we concentrate so much time and money on hunting them down. Especially when we are aware, painfully so, of much greater threats to our children and fail to give them the same kind of attention.
In the whole range of abuse problems that come to the attention of social service agencies, sexual child abuse is the most rare. It ranks far below neglect, emotional abuse and physical abuse, finishing in a dead heat with "other." Yet sexual child abuse attracts almost all our attention and most of the money spent on child abuse. Why? We should not assume that the reasons are obvious or good ones. It would be irresponsible and cruel not to press further.
We do know that FBI statistics on "classic abductions" of children (i.e., those that involve strangers taking a child physically away and doing harm) total between 100 and 200 per year -- it is not known how many involve the Internet. Put those figures in perspective: There are 350,000 intrafamily abductions per year. Somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 of the kids abducted by family are physically abused, between 3,000 and 20,000 sexually molested. (Because these figures are compiled with numbers from different agencies with different reporting schemes and, more important, different definitions of the key terms, it is perhaps more accurate to use mean figures here: About 60,000 of the kids abducted by family members are physically abused; roughly 12,000 are sexually molested.)
The Chicago Child Advocacy Center reports that of the last 4,000 child sex abuse cases it has handled, 0.13 percent have involved the Internet in some way. We might wonder what problem we are pursuing and whether all this attention to monstrous electronic strangers isn't, in part, a way to avoid looking inside our own homes and minds.
If we have evidence that sexual abuse is not the greatest problem facing our children, and that sexual abusers are almost always (up to 99 percent of the time) within the family or the family circle, why do we land so heavily -- almost exclusively -- on the image of the abductor? Surely we should ask whether this Internet predator isn't simply the latest version of the figure we keep seeking out, the Other, the monster who is threatening our kids. We should at least wonder if it's the kids we are protecting by this maneuver.
No one would argue that we should ignore threats to our children or that any child's right to happiness (and safety) is trivial. This is not an issue of mathematics but of the motivations and good sense of the adult population. We don't do ourselves or our children any favors by focusing relentlessly on problems that serve mostly to keep us from worrying about what's inside our favored institutions, institutions like the family. By casting the problem in Gothic terms -- "Kill the beast" -- we do not encourage careful or even compassionate thinking.
Children have real problems in our culture, problems less spectacular but just as crippling as any Internet abduction. We need always to have them in mind, the children who are beaten, ignored, neglected and shut out, denied decent education, hope and love. We must answer to them as well, and right now our loud protestations of virtue, our declarations of willingness to protect, must ring hollow.
Who is being served by our willingness to rush headlong after problems, even before we know the problems exist? All it takes to get our undivided attention, it seems, is a problem that is spectacular, sexualized and far from home.
We need to ask hard questions of our policing agencies and be skeptical even of our own most heated fears. We've been down that road before, and we ought to see that nobody is served by such trips. This is what William Dworin, retired Los Angeles police detective, says: "We won't be able to prove that a child was saved from molestation because of these proactive investigations, but the price is worth the effort."
That is precisely the sort of thinking we ought to take to the court of reason. Let's have some proof that the problem exists. Let's be sure the price is worth the effort, whatever that means.