The world became a smaller place with the advent of online social networking. It is becoming almost what Marshall McLuhan, among others, predicted: an internationally networked community, a global village, where human interaction can be virtually instantaneous, and can take the form of text exchanges on message boards, pictures, voice, music, and video. At its best, the medium itself approaches something akin to the rudimentary projection of consciousness -- a new means of expression, a very immediate and even intimate touching of personalities.
Take MySpace, for example.
MySpace pages are simple to construct and navigate -- so simple, even a child can design one. And millions of children do, with many thousands of those children loosely- or unsupervised and vulnerable. And wherever there are unsupervised and vulnerable children, there are child predators, pederasts and youth fetishists, who seek to psychologically manipulate and sexually exploit those children. Before the Internet, before chatrooms and webcams and IRCs, these were the depraved and obsessed and child-fixated adults who sought contact with children on real world playgrounds and schoolyards and kids’ clubs and churches. Now, they gravitate online, drawn like jackals to the herd, looking for the helpless, the wounded and alone. The pedophile problem on MySpace became pervasive -- so prevalent parents were pulling their children off MySpace and complaining loudly to law enforcement and lawmakers.
To address increasing public alarm -- as well as to quell bad publicity -- MySpace then partnered with a company called Sentry Tech, developed a new technology, and named it SentinelSAFE -- a system aggregating the various sex offender registries into one place, against which MySpace could verify its users. MySpace then lobbied lawmakers for email registration legislation requiring all sex offenders to register any and all of their email addresses when registering their physical address, with a penalty of 10 to 20 years imprisonment if violated.
For the most part, active MySpace pedophiles seeking out contact with children moved on, to safer ground, away from the spotlight of public -- and law enforcement -- attention. Many predators found an online home on other sites.
YouTube: The Pedophile Stealth Market
While MySpace was being conceived and constructed, another idea was taking root -- a place of social networking that was centered around the concept of sharing video files. Ostensibly, the videos were supposed to be ones owned and created by the YouTube user, but anyone could see the opportunity for the distribution of copyrighted material, and soon duplicated versions of television shows were making the circuit, being uploaded almost as quickly as YouTube could take them down.
The traffic on YouTube exploded beyond expectations, quickly outpacing other social sites online. By October 2006, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) decided they liked it so well enough to buy it. But there was supposition in some corners that YouTube had cheated to gain their rank, with one commentator, posting only as James, pointing out a shocking possibility for YouTube's growth.
"YouTube is currently the premier distributor for what is arguably soft child porn," writes James. "Newsgroups on YouTube have been organized expressly for pedophiles, by pedophiles, to share information on the latest soft child porn videos uploaded to YouTube. Kids from just under 18, all the way to toddler age, routinely upload videos of 'strip teases' that seem tailor made for pedophiles, and YouTube allows many to stay up on their site.
"It's the law of supply and demand," writes James. "Child porn is presumably hard to obtain, and YouTube's offering of 'soft' child porn is the best of both worlds for them, in that they can watch a 10 year old engage in a strip tease down to her underwear, dancing to 'My Humps,' or worse, and it's approved by YouTube. Call them their 'stealth subscribers.' They really run up the repetitive viewhits, they are all over YouTube, and have been since the beginning."
Pandering to pedophiles as an emerging stealth market cannot have been integral to the vision of YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, nor could anyone have expected the pedophile presence on YouTube to be so brazen and pervasive. Seriously, someone can't just create a profile and say, "Hello, I'm a pedophile. Let's chat." Right?
Astonishingly, yes, pedophiles can and yes, pedophiles do. With the ability to send public and private messages to 'Tubers, as well as the ability for children to create and upload their own Video Log (or 'vlog'), YouTube has become a haven for pedophiles to initiate contact and groom future victims. And the ghastly thing about it is that they're not even being all that discreet about it, with some of them proclaiming outright their pedophilia and defending it as some form of free speech.
Pedophiles R Us
"Most of the time I'm with boys there is no sexual involvement," writes YouTube user Myidisphat. The message is in a string of conversation following the posting of a video in which the user uses the computer game "Halo 3" to spell out "I 'heart' Little Boys" with pieces of digital shrapnel. "They think I'm cool as hell because I do crazy shit all the time. Of course they love to ruff play." Myidisphat follows up his statement, saying, "I'm not saying there is sexual involvement, but I'm not saying there isn't."
Like many vocal pedophiles on YouTube, Myidisphat touts pedophilia as a matter of freedom of expression. "I think that boy lovers are the most open minded people of this earth," he writes. "We are extremely caring. Your children would tell us things that they would never tell you. We are better than any parent with children." His video work draws, as one might expect, a great amount of irate comments, but Myidisphat also attracts his share of admirers, getting compliments from such users like draconis121, and counts among his friends (in YouTube parlance, a "friend" is someone who has sent you a request to be officially connected to your channel) sixteen-year-old fatherxxasmodeus and 2akopilag, a "Young Tuber" with a collection of videos by a boy named Jaeger.
(UPDATE: Myidisphat, whose real name is now known to be Gary Wolchesky of Middletown, NJ, has since been arrested for multiple counts of possession and distribution of child pornography, as well as child endangerment.)
Contrast Myidisphat with YouTube user WMCritest, whose real identity is publicly known. WMCritest, aka Dr. Nigel Leigh Oldfield, is a former science teacher. Outwardly charming, urbane and eloquent, he also has an arrest record for possession of child pornography. Oldfield was taken into custody in August of 2002 when he was spotted taking pictures of children at a shopping mall. Further police investigation turned up over 11,000 images of child pornography on his home computer. He served eight months for possession, and is now a crusader for pedophilia and its many forms as a form of free speech. He even links to his Website, a compendium of articles that support his theories on psychosexuality, as well as a documentation of his struggles with the legal system. His YouTube channel contains a series of text-show videos in which he holds forth on topics of interest for the Minor-Attracted Adult, a term created to bury the stigma attached to the term pedophile. "Part of my sexuality is that of a MAA, yes," says Dr. Oldfield in the comments to one of his videos. "Indeed, I am not a paedophile, by the correct definition. If I was, I would admit it... as there is no problem in having a clinical condition, per se."
Children as Victims, Children as Weapons
In August, 2006, user troyriser joined YouTube to upload videos of himself and his children to share with friends and family. When comments were left by pedophiles regarding a video of his boxer son jumping rope, Troy followed the subscription and friend listing trail of those pedophiles to YoungTubersUnited, a for-profit children's video-making organization with over 6,000 members worldwide, with both a YouTube channel, youngtubersunited2, and an independent website -- an organization vying for corporate sponsorship from Nike and CBS, and for admission into YouTube's partnership program.
As Riser delved further, he started expressing concerns about the lack of fundamental safeguards. "I began questioning the motives of the YTU’s most enthusiastic -- and most vociferous -- adult supporters, all of whom were anonymous and most of whom were apparently adult, single males," says Riser. "I received nothing but evasion, obfuscation, silence, and outright lies, both from its supporters and from documented agents of YTU, including YouTube user Irish282."
The controversy escalated after Riser made a series of videos dealing with the subject of YouTube pedophiles, which has resulted in a sustained and coordinated harassment campaign culminating in an extortion and child endangerment investigation by federal and state law enforcement. Currently, he has had at least seven channels dedicated to expressing hatred for him, with another dozen videos devoted to discrediting and vilifying him. Two of these openly display the address of his 14 year old son, his son's school, and his son's activity center, with an explicit message for people to come and visit him -- as well as the threat to shut down his channel and delete his videos or more channels will appear, each more outrageous and threatening than the last, with the next featuring his teenage daughter.
The pedophile extortionist writes, "Just so you know Troy. I’m not leaving. I will keep making these channels until you are gone. If Evil men Harm Jake like your bulletin claims. That will be on your head. Close your channel if you care about your son and the channel comes down. This should be apparent to everyone you don’t love your son…Well, not in a fatherly way." One such account featuring his son, along with photos and contact and address information, was active for over a week before YouTube finally suspended activity. Before the day was out, another account was back up with the same information. "As long as Troy is here, so will these channels," the user states.
Following the advice of the authorities, Troy Riser has no intention of acceding to the demands of online predators, no matter how organized, cohesive, or ruthless. His response to the threats aimed at him and his family is unprintable here.
Do a Google search on YoungTubersUnited, and you'll quickly find a number of support videos demanding its return. Here was a channel that young kids were flocking to, a groundswell movement that was getting kids interested in video production. The fan base for the channel, featuring videos starring and created by kids, was enormous.
Unfortunately, so was the temptation, as not all of the subscribers were kids, but rather adults -- which in and of itself is not all that unsavory. But the opportunity for pedophile poaching proved irresistible to some YouTube users, and the subscriber list for the channel included such entries as BigCD2002, a regular of the BoyMoment website, where he boasted of grooming an eleven-year-old.
When YouTube suspended the account (officially because the users violated YouTube's Terms of Service agreement -- they were under 13, although the channel was officially registered in an adult's name), many of the support videos that sprung up in the wake came from sources that wouldn't exactly be considered caring adults. YouTube user TobiranHorde made a vlog expressing his support for the return of the channel; unfortunately for TobiranHorde, he made the video while wearing the t-shirt emblazoned with the universal BoyLover logo. Oops.
YouTube has a handful of methods for users to report, or 'flag,' a user's channel whenever they view a violation of YouTube's policies -- copyright infringement, trademark infringement, adult video, and the like. However, it takes time to process the flags, and the subjective decisions often leave one scratching their head as to how YouTube thinks. (YouTube has since made reporting videos and user activity as anti-intuitive as possible.)
But things may change soon. MySpace's SentinelSAFE is licensable to other social networking sites, and Google is at least considering taking a step in a corrective direction. "We are supportive of the concept of industry, advocacy groups, and the Attorneys' General sitting down and working through the feasibility of age verification," says a Google spokesperson of the MySpace model. "We are currently studying the proposal."
YouTube is caught between the horns of a dilemma, of course. A drastic, dramatic change in YouTube corporate culture that brings about an end to the pedophile presence permeating the site would entail an enormous risk in terms of both publicity and profitability. By looking the other way, by ignoring the problem altogether and leaving the flagging and reporting of pedophiles to concerned members of the YouTube user community, YouTube absolves itself of corporate responsibility for the problem. On the other hand, if YouTube takes a proactive stance and initiates steps to acknowledge and address the problem, then YouTube is suddenly, fully, legally accountable -- leaving itself vulnerable to litigation resulting from harm to a child using its services. So YouTube studies proposals, hoping beyond hope, no doubt, the pedophile problem will magically resolve itself.
The pedophiles know this, of course. So YouTube has become a hunting ground for many of them, in a very real sense. Law enforcement, for its part, is stretched thin; the FBI, Interpol, and so on, are in the middle of a war on terror. Their first concern, rightfully so, is a global jihad intent on blowing up thousands of people.
Meanwhile, online predators on YouTube continue initiating contact with children, telling those children how smart they are or how cool they are or how pretty or handsome or fun they are, seeking out those vulnerable or lonely or impressionable children whose parents don’t know or don’t care with whom their child is interacting online, even though some of those men and women resemble nothing so much as wild dogs bringing down a deer.
Of course, the first and best line of defense always starts in the home. It's not only important for parents to monitor their children's Internet usage, but also to engage them in dialogue about who they're networked to, and why. Explain to them that they should only connect to people they already know, and that they should contact you immediately if any anonymous user insists on getting them into an IM or chat session -- and never, ever, reveal personally identifying information. And if your children ask you why, suck it up and tell them.
Because we've told our children there are no such things as monsters.
And we lied.