Beware of moral absolutes. For example: there’s not much room for debate in the war on child porn; we all agree that the stuff is atrocious and must be snuffed out. So we hand over extraordinary powers to those who would fight it. But righteousness and competence are two different things.
Case in point:
Last week the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proudly announced that they had “seized” thousands of child porn websites. Visitors to the sites now found stern government message screens reading “SEIZED” and warning that “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution” (link).
It was later revealed that the DHS had goofed—84,000 of these sites were seized by accident, and had nothing whatsoever to do with child porn. Given the special place in hell we reserve for child pornographers, one wonders what the innocent owners of those websites thought about being publicly associated with kiddie porn on their own homepages.
It’s not the first blunder (or questionable outcome) in the global crusade against child porn. Here are a few others:
- Parents charged with child porn for taking bathtub pics of their own kids. Walmart turned them in when they went to have the shots developed, and their kids were taken from them by Child Protective Services. The parents have since sued (link).
- Minors charged with child porn for texting nude pictures of themselves. It’s happened a bunch of times. (link) (link) (link).
- Australia’s national Internet filter was sold to citizens as a safeguard against child porn. But the “blacklist” of censored sites got leaked, and was shown to include many errors, including a dog kennel and a dentist. Also on the list were political enemies of the government, and Wikileaks. Not to mention the problem that a leaked index of child porn sites is a handy resource for none other than child pornographers. (link)
While many innocents can have their lives and reputations ruined by over-zealous law enforcement, actual for-profit child pornographers have had plenty of success evading authorities and Internet filters. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin reports that savvy criminals use a combination of proxy servers, encryption, and foreign computer servers to place themselves out of the reach of the law. Facing a tangle of technological and bureaucratic hurdles (extradition, etc.) police often skip the big bad guys and focus on low-hanging fruit (link).