Can access barriers stop child-pornography?

The edi­to­r­i­al in today’s “Aus­tralian newspaper”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,10961023^7583,00.html is as sonorous as the rest of the media—but less shrill than many—in sug­gest­ing some obvi­ous answers: big­ger penal­ties, glob­al law-enforce­ment coop­er­a­tio­nand cen­sor­ship of infor­ma­tion flows via the Inter­net bq.  The sup­ply obvi­ous­ly exists to meet a ready local demand that must be dealt with. While pos­sess­ing child pornog­ra­phy is ille­gal in all states, the penal­ties range from a mere 12 months to five years in prison … But there will always be peo­ple so self-obsessed they place their own desires above all else and who keep on search­ing for new sources of pornog­ra­phy … The chal­lenge for Aus­tralian police is to co-oper­ate with over­seas forces to hunt down the online pornog­ra­phers. At home they must work with the will­ing, or if nec­es­sary coerced, help of inter­net ser­vice providers, to block local access to over­seas sites. The main con­cern fol­low­ing the “police operations”:http://www.thecouriermail.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5936,10934241%255E953,00.html of last week, as the news­pa­per rec­og­nizes, is not whether pos­sess­ing images indi­cates a habit of actu­al exploita­tion of chil­dren or even the sur­pris­ing appar­ent vol­ume of demand. The chief pub­lic pol­i­cy ques­tion is: how to con­trol sup­ply. Every image indi­cates that some­one, some­where, is being reward­ed for exploit­ing a child in very harm­ful ways. We know from expe­ri­ence of trade embar­goes and bans to pro­tect endan­gered species, for exam­ple, that pro­hi­bi­tions and bar­ri­ers to demand such as inter­net cen­sor­ship and the siezure of import­ed mate­ri­als work only in par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances.  It is not clear that those required con­di­tions exist in the case of the sup­ply and demand for pornog­ra­phy that exploits chil­dren. Pro­hi­bi­tions and trade (or infor­ma­tion-flow) bar­ri­ers may depress demand, but they are unlike­ly to elim­i­nate it; par­tic­u­lar­ly demand that per­sists despite a social stig­ma as strong as that attached to the use of child pornography.[1] Worse, such bans are unlik­ley to cut sup­ply that has a crim­i­nal ori­gin. The siezures of the images and the cre­ation of stronger access bar­ri­ers are more like­ly to lead to a hike in prices for the images, greater reward for the crim­i­nals who cre­ate it, and ever-more-covert sup­ply chains. Inter­na­tion­al police coop­er­a­tion may have some val­ue, but direct coer­cive action didn’t stop the Mafia (tax and imi­gra­tion pros­e­cu­tions were more effec­tive). It seems “unlikely”:http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/region-globalization/numbers/7/524.html that it will stop the “Russ­ian mafia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Mafia who are the alleged source of some of the mate­r­i­al found in Aus­tralia last week. Mean­while, the bans and polic­ing mea­sures designed to cut con­sumer access will be cost­ly to man­age and imple­ment. They will intro­duce more intru­sive and prob­a­bly arbi­trary cen­sor­ship of infor­ma­tion; they will increase polic­ing and cus­to­di­al costs; they will pun­ish a sex­u­al pathol­o­gy with­out reduc­ing or even ame­lio­rat­ing its impact on indi­vid­u­als or the soci­ety. If the demand for child pornog­ra­phy were nar­row­ly-based and gen­er­al­ly detectible—like ‘sex tourism’ or active pae­dophil­ia— then polic­ing demand might pro­vide an accep­ti­ble bal­ance of cost and ben­e­fit. But the evi­dence of the recent police seizures doesn’t give much rea­son to think that the use of this mate­r­i­al is either overt or restrict­ed to mar­gin­al mem­bers of soci­ety. Eco­nom­ic the­o­ry says that the surest way to depress new sup­ply is to dri­ve down prices. In the case of some illict trades in endan­gered species or in drugs, this has led to lim­it­ed legal sales of the illic­it mate­r­i­al fre­quent­ly sourced from siezed stocks to deflate the rewards to sup­pli­ers.  In an “excel­lent short paper(PDF file about 200k)”:www.rff.org/Documents/RFF-Resources-150-endangered.pdf on the dif­fi­cul­ties in design­ing effec­tive embar­goes, Car­olyn Fish­er of the respect­ed Resources for the Future orga­ni­za­tion notes, how­ev­er, that spe­cif­ic details of the sup­ply-demand rela­tion­ship make a cru­cial dif­fer­ence to the suc­cess of a ban in affect­ing sup­ply: bq. “Appro­pri­ate trade and enforce­ment pol­i­cy for endan­gered species prod­ucts thus requires a rea­son­able sense of the demand and sup­ply para­me­ters. For exam­ple, if law­ful demand for rhi­no horn is low and most con­sumers are indif­fer­ent to cer­ti­fi­ca­tion [of legal sup­ply], the trade ban is like­ly to be inef­fec­tu­al in reduc­ing demand, and sell­ing con­fis­cat­ed prod­ucts would bring down prices, pri­mar­i­ly by increas­ing sup­ply to con­sumers indif­fer­ent to the law. But if ivory is in demand by lawabid­ing con­sumers sen­si­tive to the stig­ma, sales of some but per­haps not all the avail­able stock may help reduce the return to poach­ing.” Fisher’s brief and acces­si­ble paper is well worth read­ing. I cer­tain­ly would not sug­gest an anal­o­gous sup­ply of child-pornog­ra­phy from cur­rent siezures. It would be repul­sive for any gov­ern­ment to sanc­tion sup­ply of this mate­r­i­al, par­tic­u­lar­ly for the sake of sat­u­rat­ing a mar­ket. But the ques­tion of whether there are effec­tive means of depress­ing sup­ply deserves more care­ful atten­tion since it seems from the recent arrests in Aus­tralia that we are look­ing at a mar­ket that is more like the sec­ond alter­na­tive posed in Fisher’s exam­ple just quot­ed: where oth­er­wise lawabid­ing cit­i­zens who would be sen­si­tive to the stig­ma of being iden­ti­fied as a con­sumer of child pornograpy nev­er­the­less main­tained their demand. What sup­ply-side options might there be? The most dif­fi­cult, but most effec­tive means would be to deny the pro­duc­ers access to inputs: that is, to chil­dren. This means address­ing the same issues that dri­ve the sup­ply of child-pros­ti­tutes and child-sol­diers, for that mat­ter, in many poor coun­tries: chiefly, pover­ty and dis­ease epi­demics (AIDS) that leave mil­lions of chil­dren orphaned each year. But this is a long-term project. In the short term, sup­ply-side mea­sures with any hope of suc­cess might have to focus on vul­ner­a­ble parts of the sup­ply chain near­er to the source of pro­duc­tion such as the pro­duc­ers’ access to inter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions and web­sites. I don’t have detailed solu­tions for the rea­sons that emerge from Fisher’s broad con­clu­sion: it is impos­si­ble to shut-down an illic­it trade with­out spe­cif­ic mar­ket knowl­edge. But it is clear to me that we will not seri­ous­ly attack the cen­tral pub­lic pol­i­cy tar­get of child-pornograpy—supply of this repul­sive material—by con­tin­u­ing to rely on the social stig­ma, that has already proved inef­fec­tive, or by the use of bans or bar­ri­ers because the sup­ply of these mate­ri­als seems like­ly resist even the most cost­ly pro­hi­bi­tion and sur­veil­lance mea­sures. The expe­ri­ence of trade embar­goes and pro­hi­bi­tions sug­gests that more data on the mar­ket is need­ed and some com­bi­na­tion of demand and longer-term sup­ply con­trol approach­es to address the root problem—the vile exploita­tion of chil­dren by the sup­pli­ers of the materials—in an effec­tive and cost-ben­e­fi­cial way. fn1. Con­sid­er the ressur­gence of demand for ani­mal furs, until recent­ly the tar­get of wide­spread stig­ma.

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