[Washington State Attorney General, Republican Rob McKenna, debuts PubliCola's new op/ed column, as we begin regularly publishing opinion pieces by prominent local leaders .]

Should there be limits to your ability to click on whatever you like on the Web? Your first instinct may be to say no, especially if you’re not aware of something awful lurking in the darkest intersections of the Internet.

Much has been made of file-sharing sites that facilitate the trade of copyrighted music and movies. But many child pornography traffickers use this same file-sharing technology to trade images of child sexual abuse, profiting from the horrific abuse of kids. The demand for online child pornography has exploded, and the demand is being met by the systematic sexual assault and trafficking of children.

“These are incredibly disturbing images of small children being abused by adults—both males and females alike,” said Lisa Johnson, of the King County Prosecutor’s Sexual Assault Unit, at a recent hearing in Olympia.  “Sometimes these are infants. Sometimes they are tied down. They are all naked. Nearly every one of them is being penetrated in some way.”

The possession of these kinds of images and videos is illegal. But users of child pornography have found a work-around by using the Internet to view illegal files, without printing or downloading the images. In the era of YouTube-type technology, these images no longer need to be possessed. They exist primarily in digital form, shifting from server to server, to be found by those who know where to look.

That’s why we assembled a bipartisan coalition to respond to technological changes that have allowed some of the most depraved members of society to enjoy pictures and videos that memorialize gruesome crimes against children. Supporters include Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), who previously had serious concerns about the new law. This year he’s adopted our proposal in SB 6397 making it a felony to intentionally view child pornography on the Internet.

The legislation also responds to recent State Supreme Court rulings that effectively allow a volume discount for possessing child porn. Under current law, a person caught with thousands of pictures of children being sexually assaulted may only face a single charge of possessing child pornography.

Scientific studies show that those who seek sexual arousal from pictures or movies of children being molested are interested in actual victims. A 2000 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that 76 percent of offenders convicted of possessing child porn admitted to getting away with sex crimes against children. Offenders each victimized an average of 30.5 children

“At the same homes and the same places where you find people who are abusing children—often, unfortunately, their own—you will often find these images,” said Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, speaking at the House hearing.

Opponents of the legislation raise the specter of out-of-control police and prosecutors, eager to unfairly snare those who accidentally click on the wrong file, or lose control of their computer to a hacker or virus. But our proposal isn’t a blank check for drift-netting on the Internet, in search of anyone clicking on questionable material. If our bill passes, prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a user of child pornography intentionally and repeatedly sought out illegal files. Today’s digital forensic examinations, utilized by investigators, prove intent.

“If someone says, ‘Oh, I inadvertently stumbled upon the same image of the same naked child 184 times in a three day period,’ and you’re on the jury, are you buying that?” asks Roe, the Snohomish County prosecutor.

In the heat of the legislative session, it’s easy to assume that Republicans and Democrats clash on nearly every issue. Not so here. SB 6397 and its companion, HB 2424,  enjoy bipartisan support. Yet a few policymakers less familiar with digital technology remain skeptical.

This is our third year attempting to get a bill passed to address these crimes. Our bills died in 2008 and 2009, in part because they are opposed by criminal defense attorneys. In previous years, defense attorney lobbyists raised enough questions to spook legislators, who then refused to vote our bills out of legislative committees.

That’s how most bills die. There’s no up or down vote; a clock simply runs out.Will the Legislature ultimately vote in additional protections of children from these heinous crimes? Time is short as the 60-day legislative session rolls on.

Rob McKenna is the Attorney General of Washington state.
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