Barry Crimmins

words to live near



No kidding: the US Senate got an earful on the dangers of child cyberporn Saturday, January 1, 2000

Originally published in Sept, 1995 in The Boston Phoenix

by Barry Crimmins

I was thinking Frank Capra but feeling Don Knotts as I began my testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. My hand trembled so rapidly that there were small-craft warnings for my water glass. But I settled down and managed to say what I had to say and answer what was asked of me.

What had brought me, the quintessential outsider, to the seat of American power? It started more than a year ago, when a friend and fellow children's-rights advocate, Martin Miller, told me that child pornography was being openly traded on America Online. I joined the service and discovered that there were indeed numerous member rooms (cyber-niches where people, interacting live, can type messages about a common theme back and forth) created by AOL users for the express purpose of exchanging child pornography.

I lodged many complaints with AOL, and its officials responded in a fashion that made the Nixon White House seem accessible by comparison. Their indifference only fortified my resolve. In order to document the danger children are in, I adopted the on-screen identity of a 12-year-old. (An AOL user can have up to five cyber-names.) As that 12-year-old, I was sent copious amounts of child pornography, which I then turned over to law-enforcement officials and AOL.

I also began discussing the problem with various child-advocacy organizations. My friend Lana Lawrence, the publisher of Moving Forward, a quarterly for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, put me in touch with John McMickle, a conservative activist (oxymoron noted). Some weeks later, McMickle joined the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). In June, McMickle requested that I write a summary of my investigation for the senator. I complied and was invited to testify.

So there I sat, my heart pounding but in the right place. I had come to warn people that child pornography was now available to the masses, and that you can't have child pornography without abused kids. Sitting in the sterile, formal environment of a US Senate hearing chamber, I was haunted by the horrifying images I had seen over the past seven months. The children with the dead eyes and the defiled bodies. I wished everyone could see these pictures. I wished no one could see these pictures. And I thought about the kids who could still be protected.

I was in Washington to say that I valued our freedoms dearly, but that child pornography was not protected speech: it was evidence of a crime.

At the hearing, each senator present was given five minutes for opening remarks. Following this, there were three panels of three witnesses each. Each witness was also given five minutes, and, after each panel had finished, the senators questioned the witnesses. Occasionally, the senators would facilitate a discussion among panel members during the questioning.

When Chairman Grassley brought down the gavel, he began the hearing with a grave warning about how cyberporn was yet another threat to the American family. Senior minority member Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) followed by expressing concern about undermining freedom of speech with undue on-line regulations. He advocated for the software industry to be given a chance to provide parents with the tools they need to protect their children.

Senator Strom Thurmond (pterodactyl-South Carolina) apologized, saying that he would not be able to stay for the entire hearing. (This dashed my hopes of having a photo taken with him for a Christmas card of perpetual value. The caption: "Crimmins left, Thurmond extreme right.") Thurmond's genius may be that nobody ever knows what the hell he's saying. The combination of extremely advanced years and a Southern drawl even thicker than the heads of the people who continually re-elect him makes his oratory hard to follow without subtitles. I unsuccessfully stifled a huge grin as he blathered some senatorial cordiality and then summed up the importance of the hearing by informing us (as far as I could tell) that he was appreciative that this here hearing was called because children are young.

Senators Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), and Paul Simon (D-Illinois) all boasted of their unfamiliarity with the Internet. It seemed as if they took a certain manly pride in how low-tech they were. Each bravely disregarded his cyber-illiteracy and went on to espouse numerous platitudes and make impassioned ambiguous statements.

About 75 minutes into the hearing, the first panel (which consisted of a teen who had been stalked on-line and two distraught parents) finished testifying. I was on the second panel. This was it. After hundreds of hours of documenting ∓emdash; to quote human-rights rocker Bruce Cockburn ∓emdash; "things too sickening to relate," my moment had arrived. I struggled through a maze of panelists, journalists, and various Capitol Hill staffers and found my seat at the witness table. A man stepped up beside me. After months of knocking on AOL's door, I was suddenly face to face with Bill Burrington, America Online's assistant general counsel and director of government affairs. We exchanged feeble greetings and firm handshakes.

It was immediately clear that if this were a beauty contest, I would be in trouble. Burrington was nattily attired and youthfully handsome with male-model, slicked-back, wind-tunnel-resistant hair. I was bearded and curly-headed. In my suit and Jerry Garcia tie, I resembled a marijuana grower appearing at his arraignment. We were to be seated next to each other for an hour and a half. (The third panelist was Stephen Balkam, of the Recreational Advisory Council, based in Cambridge; he remained neutral on the issue of cyberporn.)

No sooner had I taken my seat than Grassley prompted me to begin. Ten minutes into my allotted five minutes, he urged me to wrap it up. I summed up the last three pages of my testimony in a few hustled paragraphs, and closed by saying, "I am here to tell the American people that not only are their children unsafe on America Online, their children are unsafe because of it."

Rushed and nervous as I was, I felt I had made my case. When he opened his remarks, Mr. Burrington seemed to agree. He followed me directly, and he began by saying, "I'm glad to be here . . . I think." He got a good laugh.

His testimony seemed canned, basically a rehash of AOL's corporate line. The only thing fresh about it was the mention of my name on numerous occasions. During his testimony, he made several patronizing references to me, and he attempted to dismiss as "dated" many of the problems I described. (During the Q∓A, however, I was able to point out that just one week earlier I had been sent atrocious child pornography via his service.) He attributed the practice of child-pornography trafficking on AOL to a "very small percentage of its customers." I tried but did not get the chance to pose the obvious question: just what percentage of members who traffic in child pornography is acceptable to AOL?

My most satisfying exchange with Burrington came when he cited AOL's "strict three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule for members who behave inappropriately on the service. I responded that I didn't think child pornographers were deserving of more than one strike, a point Burrington stammeringly conceded.

The real battle at the hearings, however, was not between Burrington and me but between Leahy and Grassley. Grassley wants regulation so that the family can be protected. Leahy prefers software so that parents may selectively censor their children's on-line activities. In both cases, a major point is missed. I covered it in my testimony when I stated that parental controls disregard a serious reality: in many cases, the parents themselves are the perpetrators of these crimes. AOL has member-created rooms with titles such as "family fun," "Nudist families," "Incest is best," "Have hot stepdaughter," and so on. Many of the photos exchanged in these rooms are purportedly of people's own children. So the notion that parents should be the sole entity protecting children on-line, or anywhere else, I told the senators, is easily discredited.

Leahy insisted that there are adequate laws on the books dealing with child pornography. I agreed but pointed out that the problem is lack of enforcement, not only on AOL but across the Internet. I told them that when there's a crime wave we don't say, "Well, that's okay, because there are laws against crime." I called for more funds for law enforcement to deal with the child-pornography crime spree.

Burrington said AOL had increased its "terms-of service" staff 600 percent since February. (Those employees supposedly enforce the member-service agreement governing conduct on AOL.) That sounded impressive until he divulged the actual figure: AOL's paid terms-of-service staff had "skyrocketed" from four to 24. That is, a 24-person staff for a 24-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week service with three million subscribers. I let the senators do their own math on that one.

After the hearing, I had no idea what purpose my testimony may have served. I wondered: did I get to them? Will they take action? I hoped so. But this was politics. Whatever the case, I knew the media had been there, and that AOL had at least been forced to listen and respond to my allegations. As I prepared to leave the chamber, Mr. Burrington expressed a seemingly sincere desire to "work with me on this." Later, we scheduled a teleconference.

If America Online really cleans up the problem, I will be the first to applaud its responsiveness. If not, I know a "12-year-old" who is willing to violate the child-labor laws by working long and late hours so that Mr. Burrington's expensive shoes are once again planted firmly on the carpet in Washington.