Business world steps up fight against child porn

An Internet-enabled computer at the Brooklyn Public Library.

TEXT: Business world steps up fight against child porn

Child pornography has always been an ugly business. Now it's grown into a big one, thanks to the Internet.

"The demand for this content is far greater than we ever imagined," says Ernie Allen, who heads up the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

He says accurate numbers are tough to come by. But recent surveys estimate child porn has mushroomed into a $20 billion-a-year industry.

Allen says the images are growing more violent and more graphic. And the victims keep getting younger. Some are now under the age of three.

A recent case involving one website shows how tough it is for law enforcement to keep up:

"When the site was shut down, they had 70,000 customers paying $29.95 a month and using their credit cards to gain access to graphic images of small children being sexually assaulted. So all 70,000 of those people become persons of interest."

And that's just one investigation.

But since child porn is illegal, it's against the law to use credit cards and the banking system to pay for it. And that's where a new group called the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography comes in.

Members include credit card companies like Visa, MasterCard and American Express -- as well as PayPal. Big banks like Citigroup and B of A, and major players in the Internet business.

They're all working with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to stop payments to child porn websites and shut them down.

Child advocate Ernie Allen calls the campaign-historic. "I think the strength is the unity. The fact that these fierce competitors have agreed to work together around this common purpose," Allen said.

Arne Christenson, who handles government affairs for American Express, said: "Child pornography is pictures from a crime scene. And there's no place for any business in society to support that at all."

He says cracking down on porn peddlers is good citizenship.

It also helps protect the value of the American Express name:

"Everyone who relies on our brand -- whether it's our customers, our shareholders, or our employees -- they all want to be proud of that brand and they all wanna have a brand that has power in the market."

Even before the Coalition was created, AMEX banned the use of its card on pornographic websites, be it child porn or otherwise.

Visa also been part of the fight. For the past few years, it's hired experts who use sophisticated software to search for websites that carry child porn -- and the Visa logo. When a site's discovered, Visa then passes that info on to the cops.

But operators of child porn websites are getting savvier.

Their sites are tougher to find and often use front companies or third parties to process payments.

And Visa Vice President Rhonda Bentz says the Worldwide Web's a big place for one company to patrol alone:

"I think we can get to a lot more sites working with MasterCard, working with American Express, with other financial institutions," Bentz said.

And together, the coalition's members are pushing to wipe out commercial child porn by 2008.

Bentz admits it's not much time. But, she said: "We can't let children wait while we try and work through bureaucracies to solve a problem. We have to set a date and do everything we can to get to that date."

So the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography's calling in reinforcements.

It's already talking with financial institutions in Europe, Asia, and Latin America about taking the fight global.

— Cheryl Glaser

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