The headlines were sensational:
"Crackdown Launched on Computerized International Child Porn Ring."
"Raid Targets Computer Child Porn Ring."
"Agents Crack Down on Hi-Tech Computerized Child Porn."
The stories were equally breathless and chock full of silly stuff about computers as instruments of the devil. But given the number of questions I got from people who were suddenly concerned about "computer pornography," I thought it would be a good idea to explain what happened.
First, the facts: On March 4, U.S. Customs agents raided 40 homes around the country in search of material from a Danish computer bulletin board service that offered digitized photographs of children in pornographic poses. They confiscated a lot of computers but didn't arrest anybody.
How does all this work? Let's talk about images first. With a device called a scanner and the proper software, it's possible to convert any image on paper to a series of dots that are stored as binary ones and zeros on a computer's disk drive. With the right software, it's also possible to reconstruct that image on a computer screen, edit it, print it or incorporate it in another document.
There's nothing new here. In fact, there's a good chance that the photographs you see in this newspaper were scanned in from prints or negatives. They were cropped, enlarged, reduced and otherwise manipulated on a computer system to produce the best images for reproduction.
While large publications have sophisticated and outrageously expensive systems to do this kind of work, small hand scanners for PCs that can deal with color images at lower resolution are available in any computer store for $300 to $400. Larger, full-page scanners start at $1,500 or so. Software to manipulate photographic images is available for as little as $100.
It's also possible to digitize images from TV or videotape, although this requires additional hardware and the quality is far lower than images scanned from photographs. Special video cameras that take still pictures, digitize them internally and store them directly on disk are also available. The quality is better than an image captured from a TV signal or videotape, but still not as good as a real photograph.
This technology is rapidly entering the consumer mainstream. Kodak, for example, is heavily promoting its new photo compact disk player. If you have one of these gadgets, Kodak will develop your film and store the images digitally on a compact disk that the player can use to display the photos on your TV set.
Many new CD-ROM players designed for computers can also handle the Kodak disks.
Even newer software and hardware allow computers to store and display full video clips, complete with sound and motion, although this technology is still in its infancy.
Given the hardware and software available today, it's hardly jTC surprising that people are using computers to store pictures with sexual content, just as they're using computers to digitize the works of the great masters.
While it may come as a shock to some law enforcement agents, X-rated computer images have been sold and traded openly for years. In fact, a recent issue of stodgy old PC Magazine (which circulates a mere 750,000 or so) contained 10 different ads from companies that handle explicit material, although none advertised or hinted at child pornography.
Now to the distribution. Any photograph stored digitally as a file on a computer's disk drive can be mailed on a floppy disk or be transmitted over the phone to another computer by a modem.
Electronic bulletin boards are PCs running programs that allow other computer users to call up, exchange messages and send or receive files. By various estimates, there are 50,000 to 100,000 computer bulletin boards in the United States.
Most are operated by hobbyists, although there are an increasing number of commercial bulletin boards that charge for connect time or require a flat yearly fee.
The big on-line information services, such as Compuserve, GEnie and Prodigy, are essentially huge bulletin board systems running on mainframe computers that can accommodate thousands of users at once.
The Danish bulletin board that provided the child pornography in the most recent case was a commercial operation that charged its customers $80 a year, plus the cost of a call to Denmark. No doubt there are similar boards operating elsewhere.
Because they offer relative anonymity and don't run afoul of postal regulations, computer bulletin boards are undoubtedly attractive to people who buy and sell child pornography, which is illegal in most states and generally does not come under the First Amendment umbrella that protects adult erotic material.
Most of the millions of people who use bulletin boards and on-line services are not interested in kiddie porn. But the hype surrounding this case was absolutely astounding.
"Basically, what we have here is a bunch of computer perverts," said William Rosenblatt, the customs chief in Miami.
People who traffic in child pornography are certainly perverts in my book, but I wonder what would have happened if the customs people had confiscated a bunch of pornographic videotapes, instead. Would the suspects all be "TV perverts?" Or if the feds had found pornographic magazines, would the bad guys all be "paper perverts?"
The fact is that computers are just another medium for transmitting information from one party to another.
People use computers to download stock quotes, transmit sales orders to the home office and fax their lunch orders to the local deli. It's not surprising that people use computers for unsavory purposes, too.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)