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Using a Virtual Child to Catch Web Cam Predators; Is It Legal?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

The battle against online child predators may have just gotten its most powerful tool, but already, it has us wondering: is this thing legal?

This morning, Terre des Hommes, an international organization operating out of the Netherlands, handed over the identities of 1,000 pedophiles to Interpol. The predators attempted to pay Sweetie, a ten-year-old girl in the Philippines, for a web cam sex show.

Sweetie, however, isn't real.

It's so realistic, it's creepy. And yet, it's not nearly as creepy as the disgusting individuals on the other side of the camera. And as the video shows, the sting was effective. As soon as the operatives identified themselves as a ten-year-old girl in the Philippines, their computer was inundated with messages. It took only two months for the organization to track down 1,000 pedophiles.

Even worse, according to TDH, only six people have ever been charged for this type of conduct. There is one small problem, however: at least here in the United States, Sweetie might be illegal.

Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition

Had this decision gone the other way, Sweetie-like programs would definitely be illegal in the states.

In Ashcroft, the court invalidated a federal law that criminalized possession and distribution of "virtual" child pornography because the justification for infringing upon free speech with "real" child pornography, the harm to the victims, was not present with simulated images. Plus, the law could be applied to such valuable works as productions of "Romeo and Juliet," due to the characters' ages.

Interestingly enough, Chief Justice Rehnquist's dissent noted that rapidly-advancing technology would soon make virtual child pornography indistinguishable from that made with actual children, making enforcement of laws against real images impossible to enforce.

United States v. Williams

Then again, a later law, upheld by the court in Williams, may make TDH's actions illegal.

The statute in question, 18 USC § 2252A(a)(3)(B), prohibits pandering of child pornography, elaborated as offering "any material or purported material in a manner that reflects the belief, or that is intended to cause another to believe, that the material or purported material is, or contains" child pornography.

The Court drew a narrow line, when it stated that, "an offer to provide or request to receive virtual child pornography is not prohibited by the statute. A crime is committed only when the speaker believes or intends the listener to believe that the subject of the proposed transaction depicts real children."

In other words, as is required by Ashcroft, simulated child pornography is legal, so long everyone knows that the materials aren't actually children. It's a narrow line, but it would exempt Hollywood teenage love scenes, where everyone knows that the actors are not actually adolescents.

It also seems to implicate the activities of TDH, which offers up a fake, naked child as the real thing on the Internet. We're not too clear on the international laws regarding such activity, but at least here in the U.S., we probably won't be seeing police use Sweetie.

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