Today, was a sad day as one of the darkest and most malicious uses of the Internet was uncovered.
In the U.S., 72 people were charged and 52 arrested in the U.S. and abroad, for participating in the online distribution of images depicting the sexual exploitation of children, including infants.
When you read about the horrific acts committed against these children, it is very difficult to get through the details. The crimes of this group of perverted individuals included the physical violation of the children, but the equally vile offense was the drive to ascend the ranks of their twisted online social circle by uploading many and more violent images to the site. User-generated images were most highly regarded and rewarded by the group.
Most people are sickened by this, but as a parent and child and online safety advocate, so many other things came rushing to mind.
As a parent, I of course felt pain at the thought of this happening to the most innocent and defenseless in our society, relief that my own children are safely far away from such harm, and a renewed resolve to ensure nothing like this ever, ever happens to them.
I was also reminded that technology can be used for both good and evil, and thankfully, more for the former than the latter. Cases like this certainly do not help when you are trying to lessen technophobia among parents and teachers, but it is understandable how and why the fear of the Internet can be so deeply rooted. I think we need to remember that millions of people are online every day, and most are not as malicious and evil as those in this case. After reading about this, I also longed to hear more about the nurturing, heroic, or inspiring ways that people around the world are using the Internet – the stories that happen all the time but never become a headline.
Furthermore, among the current legal climate and debate on how to protect people’s privacy online, a case like this makes it hard to argue for anonymity. While most people are well-intentioned and deserve to have their privacy respected and protected, sweeping laws may also give criminals like this a chance to continue their despicable behavior in the shadows longer than any of us would like.
Lastly, I felt thankful that we made the decision over a year and a half ago to join the fight against the online distribution of child pornography. As a participant in the URL project with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S. and as a licensee of the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, our organization blocks access to these criminal images through all of our products, for all of our customers – from individuals to small business to large organizations. Each time one of these images is viewed, it constitutes another exploitation of the child involved. For us, it was never an issue of censorship – child exploitation images are not protected speech in much of the world. It was always an issue of standing up for doing what is right. While this technology decision will not ultimately stop the despicable acts such as those committed by the group charged and arrested today, it can at least help deter them from reaching a broader audience online.
While I do not know yet the details of how this group was caught (given that they used a number of techniques to avoid discovery such as encryption and proxy servers) the investigators should be given respect and thanks for the work they did over the last 2 years to bring them to justice.
We may wonder but never know the fate of the children involved in this case. But we can all hope that by some miracle their lives may one day be restored, and we can act every day in ways that protect all children online or off.
You can follow Lynette on Twitter @LynetteTOwens
For more information about helping kids and families with the safe and responsible use of the Internet, visit www.trendmicro.com/internetsafety
Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens