As usual, it took a celebrity bust to finally interest the public in a scandal.
This time, the celebrity is Pete Townshend of the Who, and the scandal is child pornography. Townshend is accused of downloading and sharing kiddie porn files, purchasing them with his credit card.
Townshend, for his part, claims he was researching a book on his own suspected abuse as a child — the genesis of Tommy's Uncle Ernie, among other indicators in his body of work — and some of his Web writings from more than a year ago suggests there may be some truth in this.
On the other hand, there are procedures for this sort of research, none of which Townshend appears to have followed. Moreover, "research" has become a tired alibi for pederasts and other visitors to the underworld over the last decade. Every sleazeball with a disk full of pictures of naked children turns out to be working on an expose book.
Though I suspect that Townshend may be telling the truth, I have no firm opinion either way.
What I do have a strong opinion on is that the media continues to utterly fail in its reporting of this topic, and the consequence of this failure is horrible beyond imagining. And one day it will touch us all.
How do I know this? Because I've visited those depths and returned a shaken man.
The Shocking Truth
Three years ago, as editor of Forbes ASAP magazine, I was approached by Robert Grove, my multimedia editor and producer of my TV shows. The story he told me was shocking. Like most people, I knew that child porn, that most despicable of crimes, was available somewhere out there on the Web. But I assumed it was furtive, tiny and all but inaccessible; the province of a handful of perverts passing photos back and forth.
What Bob told me was stunning. What he had learned from his sources was that child porn wasn't a tiny boutique industry, but a global empire. That it wasn't hidden, but easy to find. But most of all, he said, this wasn't just some crude, back-alley operation, but a sophisticated business octopus, using some of the most sophisticated computer software and encryption, conveyed by some of the biggest and most legitimate corporations, and with revenues of billions of dollars. Worst of all, Bob said, this creepy shadow organization ultimately had the potential to morph into dangerous new forms and threaten our national security.
I gave Bob the assignment to chase the story as far as it would go. Little did he or I now how far that would be.
But first, we did one thing Pete Townshend apparently never did: We went to the feds. In our case, it was the FBI office in Oakland, Calif. There, the agents did exactly what they should have done: They warned us that if we were lying or downloading any of the sites, they would throw us in jail. In turn, we, as editors for Forbes ASAP, agreed to turn over any leads we had.
And then we began a three-month tour of hell.
You may think you know what the child pornography industry is, but, no matter how cynical you are, you do not. Yes, it is naked children exposing themselves. But it is worse than that. It is adults having sex with children, even babies. But it is worse than that. It is the rape and torture of little children.
But, hard as it may be to accept, it is even worse than that.
A couple of years ago, the Italian press ran a story that received little pickup in the U.S. media. It was about the arrest of an Italian-Russian pederast ring that was taking orders from customers to kidnap Russian orphans according to pre-specified characteristics like hair color — then torture and kill them on camera for posting on the Web.
This is the very heart of darkness. These are images that are more than shocking and repulsive. They kill your soul, in part because you know that every poor child you see on these sites is dead, if not now at the hands of a sadist, then decades from now from drugs, alcoholism or suicide. The pictures first make you sick, then angry, and finally homicidal. If you could get ahold of the people perpetrating this, you would kill them with your bare hands. But you can't; the best thing you can do is expose them. So you go on.
Very quickly, I made it a point not to look at the pictures anymore. That was my prerogative as editor. But it was already too late: There were already certain unspeakable images so burned into my brain that, even now, I wish I could take a scalpel and cut them out.
But Bob had no choice. He had to look. Only his fury and hatred of these people and his desire to destroy them kept him going — and when that wasn't enough he'd go out at night and get drunk to try to destroy the memories.
In the end, at considerable cost to his psyche, Bob got it all: from the poor families in the Eastern Bloc and Africa selling their kids to porn merchants to the sophisticated software and encryption designed to bury these sites in plain sight, to the giant Internet and financial services companies that make only a cursory effort to defend themselves from being used as conveyors of this evil smut to its degenerate customers.
By the time Bob finished his story, Forbes ASAP was dying. There was no place to run the story. So we took it to the mother ship, Forbes, which wanted nothing to do with it. In the end, it was Red Herring, and its heroic managing editor, Blaise Zerega, who finally brought the story to print. You can read it at: http://www.redherring.com/mag/issue109/1249.html.
And that was it. Bob won a well-deserved award for his work, the feds made a few busts seemingly based on our leads, and the child porn scandal disappeared from the public consciousness.
The Missed Stories
Now, with the Pete Townshend bust, the story is back. And yet, by focusing only on a single personality, the media has once again missed the bigger stories.
What are those missed stories? For one thing, Townshend was busted because he used his credit card. Why wasn't the credit card company — Visa or MasterCard — charged as well? Why is it even possible to buy child pornography with plastic? Don't say it's because it would be like finding a needle in a haystack of millions of transactions; that's why we have search programs and spider applets. Where are the Visa or Mastercard task forces on child porn?
Spokespeople for the credit card companies say while they are opposed to child pornography, they have no direct line knowledge of how their cards are being used.
"It's our member banks' job to know what their customers are doing and how our card is being used," says Joshua Peirez, vice president and counsel for MasterCard.
In a statement, Visa said that it did not want to be associated with any inappropriate activity that involves degrading and harmful conduct. "We will make every effort to deny merchant acceptance privileges for such inappropriate activity," says the company.
By the same token, why is it even possible to find this stuff on the World Wide Web? Why aren't the hosting sites, from regional ISPs to AOL, being investigated, too? They'll argue that they can't monitor all those thousands of Web sites and .alt chat rooms under their control, especially the gypsy ones that use software to hijack a URL for a few days before jumping on to another. But that's a lie, too. They know that they merely have to monitor traffic and look for sudden and unprecedented spikes in usage. There's even search software to find these images.
But they won't do it, because no one makes them do it. Besides, it's not their problem — or ours. Just let the cops bust the users.
If you believe that, you deserve what's coming next. Let me tell you now the worst thing Bob discovered in the course of his research: Kiddie porn is just the beginning. It is, in fact, a Trojan horse. The apparatus that currently exploits children in the underdeveloped world and distributes the results to hungry perverts in the developed one only grows more sophisticated, faster, more robust and more secure, by the day.
Very soon now, it will be carrying shipping delivery dates for drugs, electronic currency being laundered, messages to secret cells, and atomic bomb diagrams. Do you think it is a coincidence that al Qaeda hid its e-mails behind porn pictures?
Now, do you still want to pretend it's somebody else's problem?
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com.
Robert Grove contributed to this column.
Editor's Note: Silicon Insider will begin running every Thursday starting Feb. 6.