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Congress considers bill to better track child pornographers
Scripps Howard News Service


February 23, 2008

Mere days before her sixth birthday, Samantha Runnion was snatched from her front yard in Stanton, Calif., sexually assaulted and brutally murdered by a man who had viewed child pornography on his home computer.

"Each time he was uploading and downloading these horrible images, each of those times was an opportunity for law enforcement to identify his computer, know the location of it and investigate it, and possibly prevent a tragedy," said Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion.

Spurred by child safety advocates, Congress is considering a bill that would provide $1.05 billion over the next eight years to make it easier for authorities to track users of illegal online child pornography.

The bill, Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2007, would provide funds for the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) grant program, which would be used to add federal investigators and increase forensic capacity at regional computer labs that monitor child pornography users.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., sponsored the bill, which is companion legislation to a bill that overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in November.

"At the same time (that) the Internet has given children access to the world, it has also given the world access to our kids," Biden said in a statement. "This horrific and growing problem needs to be stopped. We need to give law enforcement the funds and the tools to pull the plug on Internet predators."

Nelson Peacock, counsel to Biden, said they are hoping that the Senate passes the bill by late spring.

Online child pornography has become a multi-billion dollar a year industry, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

ICAC, a Department of Justice program, funds centers around the country that use software to monitor peer-to-peer networks and track Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and individual computer serial numbers.

Two child safety advocacy associations, The Surviving Parents Coalition, which Runnion is part of, and The National Association to Protect Children, are spearheading the movement behind the bill. They say that ICAC centers are currently underfunded and can do little with the information they have gathered.

Flint Waters, who heads the Wyoming ICAC Task Force, said they have tracked 570,000 individual computers across the nation that distribute or download child pornography.

"The numbers are increasing," Waters said in an e-mail interview. "In 2007 we saw more activity than in the previous years combined."

ICAC is able to follow through on investigating only 2 percent of online child pornography cases, according to the Surviving Parents Coalition.

"The idea that they have actually identified 500,000 individual computers and their locations and we just don't have the manpower to go and get them -- it's inexcusable," Runnion said. "Children are behind the doors of at least 30 percent of those that could literally be rescued today if we had the man power to do it."

Other bills aimed at nabbing child pornography users have rankled privacy advocates, but it is hard to lump the measure now working its way through Congress with the others, said Michael Macleod-Ball, chief legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Macleod-Ball said that although there are privacy concerns over any type of monitoring, the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2007 appears to be "attempting to follow the constitutional requirements."

"It's not so much that we're concerned with inhibiting or restricting the communications of child pornographers that have been deemed to be criminal," Macleod-Ball said. "But rather, we're concerned with the communications of those who are not child pornographers, who happen to be sort of swept in" by the net cast to find those engaged in crimes.


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Ketchikan, Alaska