The Orchid Club was once a lurid corner on the information superhighway - an Internet conference room or "chat room" where members thousands of miles apart could meet in cyberspace and trade homemade child pornography, both in words and pictures.
To enter the club's electronic backroom, members needed a password. No one could join the club without a referral from a member, and initiates were required to send other members a description of a sexual encounter with a child.
According to a federal indictment in San Jose, Calif., Orchid Club members used an on-line electronic medium known as "Internet relay chat," or IRC, to not only share live conversations but also to transmit digitized still pictures and live video images of children as they were being molested by a member.
The Orchid Club was exposed last month after police began investigating the sexual abuse of a six-year-old girl in Greenfield, Calif. Federal indictments list the names of 16 Orchid Club members in the United States, Canada, Finland, and Australia on charges of conspiring to produce and disseminate child pornography.
But the Orchid Club's members were hardly alone in their peculiar use of the Internet.
Internet porn as threat
As home access to the Internet grows rapidly, so too does the threat that this on-line medium will expand opportunities for sexual exploitation of children - particularly in United States and Canada where sales of home PCs are booming.
About 10 million people use on-line services and tens of millions more use the Internet worldwide - including IRC and the graphics-oriented World Wide Web. Among those millions, a small percentage are pedophiles who discover each other in unregulated electronic forums.
They typically exchange experiences and pictures, police say, which then reinforces their behavior and encourages more physical encounters with children "off line."
The Internet's role in facilitating a renewed spate of child sexual exploitation has ignited furious debate in Europe, the US, and Canada over free-speech rights and government regulation of a new communications medium as untamed as the old American Wild West.
In the case of the Orchid Club, children were not apparently molested for profit. But sexual abuse was encouraged by the conferencing ability of the Internet. And it is only a click of a computer mouse from that kind of chat room to a normal kids' chat room, police say.
Pedophilia expands reach
While it is certainly possible for technically adept kids to find child pornography on their own on the Internet, the key danger of child sexual exploitation is significantly more subtle.
Given the anonymity that is possible on the Internet, an increasing number of pedophiles are feigning youth in their electronic personae as they troll through various forums looking for children to abuse. Often this does not require even getting on the Internet directly, but onto the side-roads of an on-line "brand" service.
Few police departments have specialists focusing on computer on-line exploitation of children. But as the problem grows, so do calls for more attention to it.
Douglas Rehman, a special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has made 12 arrests over two years of people using the Internet either for child porn or to meet kids to have sex with them. "This is not a static percentage - it's a growth crime," Mr. Rehman says. "The Internet and on-line services are the absolute best hunting ground the pedophile could wish for."
Nationwide, he estimates 250-300 charges of child sexual exploitation using the Internet have been brought in the last two years.
Typically a child uses the family computer to dial onto the Internet through a service provider or onto one of the on-line services, all of which have electronic "forums" set aside for children. During these instantaneous on-line electronic chat sessions, children send electronic messages to other kids who appear to have common interests.
But because there is near anonymity, it is impossible for a child to know if the person named "Terri" with whom he or she is communicating is a 12-year-old girl or a 45-year-old man pretending to be a young girl. On-line services now provide adult "hosts" to keep an eye on discussions and watch for abuses. But IRC chat groups and Internet newsgroups designated with "alt." prefix in the Internet address usually have no such regulation.
The child who isn't
Pretending to be a child, the pedophile may converse with a real child in an open chat forum. But it may be a short step thereafter into a "private" one-on-one chat room, police say. At that point, a pedophile will use different questions and techniques to discover a child's vulnerabilities. Do they have disagreements with their parents? Do they like to party? Do they like pornography? Drugs?
A pedophile often will eventually send pictures of pornography from his computer to the child's computer in hopes of "lowering the child's inhibitions," toward having sex, police say. What may follow then will be a suggestion that the two actually meet. The child may not know until the moment of the meeting that his 12-year-old electronic pen pal is actually a man.
But anonymity works both ways. Last month a former volunteer at several local youth groups in Uxbridge, Mass., was arrested on federal charges that he used an on-line computer service to solicit sex from a youth he thought was under 18. Police say the man travelled to Troy, N.Y., believing he would be meeting a 13-year-old boy for a sexual encounter.
In fact, the "boy" was a reporter from an Albany, N.Y., television station who had arranged the meeting after finding a solicitation for sex in one of the chat rooms of the America Online service last year.
One professional cybercop is Toby Tyler, who surfs the Net from his computer terminal in the San Bernadino (Calif.) County Sheriff's Department. He searches for scams, sources of child porn, and deceptions designed to entrap children. Five investigators in his department are busy full-time investigating child sexual exploitation - much of it flowing from pedophiles trying to set up meetings with children by computer.
The Internet is a "two-edged sword" for child pornographers, Deputy Tyler says. On the one hand, he says, it seems to have damaged the profitability of pornographers who sell their wares via dial-up computer "bulletin board." There is so much free stuff on the Internet - why would anyone pay?
On the other hand, wide access to child pornography may be building an appetite among pedophiles that could lead to more children being molested and a wider market and profit for the child pornographer.
Child pornography was nearly stamped out as a cottage industry in the United States in the 1980s, but has resurged in the 1990s in unregulated Internet news groups, "chat rooms," and commercial on-line services. Today child pornography that was produced, mostly in Scandinavian countries in the 1960s, '70s, and early '80s, is being scanned or digitized and re-released on CD-ROMs advertised to a global audience on the Internet.
"The ability to mass market child pornography with little or no overhead to huge populations has created an environment where pressures for new material exist," says Kevin V. Di Gregory, deputy assistant attorney general in the United States Justice Department in June testimony before Congress. "This demand, unfortunately, is being met by new material from sources which include the Pacific Rim countries ...."
On the technological cutting edge of child pornography lurks a practice in which graphics software can splice any child's picture into a pornographic image to create a fictional scene that never occurred. The danger is that such images might be used to coerce or blackmail children into silence - or to seduce them.
Mr. Di Gregory says the Justice Department wants Congress to ban such computer-altered images on the same legal basis that child pornography is banned, namely, damage to the individual child.
There are already reports, however, of at least one site on the Web where a pornographic image of a computer-generated "virtual child" - who does not exist but looks lifelike - is displayed. Under current laws, such "child pornography" would be difficult or impossible to prosecute.
Until society has agreed on better ways to end child pornography on the Internet, police say parents or schools will have to closely monitor the use of the Internet by children.
"We warn our kids about strangers," Rehman, the special agent in Florida, says. "We're not as attentive when they're sitting at home, comfortable and safe, and the door is locked. But the stranger that comes in through the [computer modem] is every bit as dangerous."