The truth that great power brings great responsibility applies to all of us, and it is reinforced in the current The New York Times story on a natural evolution in the use of the webcam: live pornography of children and adolescents. Modern telecom technology confers great power to us very ordinary individuals, and naturally enough, that power is often used for great evil. In our modern society of easy divorce and family breakups, the young are at truly severe risk as they become instantly connected to the entire world and are vulnerable to the manipulation of wily strangers who know exactly how to use these people's insecurities to obtain their own perverse gratifications:
Justin had hooked up a Web camera to his computer, hoping to use it to meet other teenagers online. Instead, he heard only from men who chatted with him by instant message as they watched his image on the Internet. To Justin, they seemed just like friends, ready with compliments and always offering gifts.
Now, on an afternoon in 2000, one member of his audience sent a proposal: he would pay Justin $50 to sit bare-chested in front of his Webcam for three minutes. The man explained that Justin could receive the money instantly and helped him open an account on PayPal.com, an online payment system.
"I figured, I took off my shirt at the pool for nothing," he said recently. "So, I was kind of like, what's the difference?"
Justin removed his T-shirt. The men watching him oozed compliments.
So began the secret life of a teenager who was lured into selling images of his body on the Internet over the course of five years. From the seduction that began that day, this soccer-playing honor roll student was drawn into performing in front of the Webcam - undressing, showering, masturbating and even having sex - for an audience of more than 1,500 people who paid him, over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The power of cheap, widely distributed technology, which is of course a very good thing overall, has made this sort of activity possible and indeed common:
Not long ago, the distribution of child pornography in America was a smallish trade, relegated to back rooms and corners where even the proprietors of X-rated bookstores refused to loiter.
By the mid-1980's, however, technology had transformed the business, with pedophiles going online to communicate anonymously and post images through rudimentary bulletin board systems. As Internet use boomed in the 1990's, these adults honed their computer skills, finding advanced ways to meet online and swap illegal photos; images once hard to obtain were suddenly available with the click of a mouse.
As the decade drew to a close, according to experts and records of online conversations, these adults began openly fantasizing of the day they would be able to reach out to children directly, through instant messaging and live video, to obtain the pornography they desired.
Their dream was realized with the Web camera, which transformed online pornography the way the automobile changed transportation. . . .
By 2000, things had worked out exactly the way the pedophiles hoped. Webcams were the rage among computer-savvy minors, creating a bountiful selection of potential targets.
Through the same technology, the users can easily communicate the tricks of their appalling trade with one another, honing their skills at exploitation and providing justifications for their actions:
Not long ago, adults sexually attracted to children were largely isolated from one another. But the Internet has created a virtual community where they can readily communicate and reinforce their feelings, experts said.
Indeed, the messages they send among themselves provide not only self-justification, but also often blame minors with Webcam sites for offering temptation."
These kids are the ones being manipulative," wrote an adult who called himself Upandc in a posting this year to a bulletin board for adults attracted to children.
Or, as an adult who called himself DLW wrote: "Did a sexual predator MAKE them make a site? No. Did they decide to do it for themselves? Yes."
The central narrative of the story includes other ghastly facts, including meetings of a boy with molesters and the involvement of his father in the scheme.
These are, of course, developments that we had to expect, but the ubuquity of the phenomenon is hair-raising, and the story is a rather depressing though necessary read.
One more thing. Although we often hear tales about journalists exploiting people for a story, there are also instances of great good that people in our profession do, beyond just presenting the news. In that light, I wish to commend the author of this story, Kurt Eichenweld, for his immensely honorable actions toward the young man at the center of the narrative. Eichenweld's part in the story is not emphasized in his article, but it is quite inspiring.