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House Hears Online Child Porn Testimony

WASHINGTON -- The testimony was stark and dark yesterday as Congress took one of its periodic looks at child pornography on the Internet.

Specifics replaced the usual generalities with the focus on pay-for-view live webcams of underage children -- including infants and toddlers -- engaging in sexual acts. In some cases, the parents of the children shot and produced the videos.

Congressional estimates put the online child pornography business at $20 billion a year and growing. Online or offline, child pornography is illegal in the United States and most other countries.

"Of all the hearings that we've done ... I've never been more revolted in preparing for a hearing than in reading the materials that I've had to read for this one," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said.

Highlighting the sparsely attended hearing was the testimony of 19-year-old Justin Berry, who was featured in a December New York Times series on child exploitation over the Internet and the author of the story, Kurt Eichenwald.

"Like most people, I gave little thought during my life to the scourge of child pornography. But, I now know we are fighting a losing battle," Eichenwald said. "The predators are sophisticated in the use of computers and talented in the manipulation of children."

He added, "They count on our willingness to avert our eyes from the unpleasant to succeed in their pursuit of illegal images of minors."

For Berry, it began when he was 13 years old after he received a webcam as part of signing up for a broadband account.

"No teenager ever contacted me but many child predators did," Berry said. "I believed these people were friends. They taught me about the wish list on Amazon and began buying me presents."

According to Berry, the seduction was slow, beginning with a man offering him $50 to take off his shirt live on Berry's webcam. Before it was over, Berry's father was producing live video of his son having sex.

"My Dad? He said he was helping me maximize my profit potential," Berry said.

Eichenwald said his research showed that Berry was not an isolated case.

"Hundreds of minors have been lost to the lure of performing in online pornography. They include children from every walk of life -- wealthy and middle class, honor students and those struggling with their grades, children of divorce and with intact families," he said.

Eichenwald said the only shared characteristic he found was "a loneliness that these minors feel is alleviated by meeting people online -- and in person -- through their webcam business."

Beyond the sexual exploitation of children, Eichenwald said one of the most troubling aspects of his research was that "major American and international companies" were advertising on portals promoting underage pornographic webcams.

"The advertisements appeared immediately above images used by boys and girls to market their pornographic sites," he said. "Apparently, these companies were attempting to win business both from customers and teenagers themselves, as they offered services to help efficiently run for-pay sites."

The New York Times reporter specifically named webcam manufacturers Logitech and Creative and Verotel, an international credit card processing company, as advertisers on the portals.

"I even found a company that provided streaming video to sites operated by minors, on condition that its president be allowed to watch the pornographic performances for free," Eichenwald said.

Lawmakers were appropriately shocked.

"What kind of society do we have if we can't protect infants from sexual exploitation?" Barton asked. "One of the witnesses' material shows that almost half of the incidents of sexual exploitation of children are by family members. What kind of family is that?"

Rep. John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said through a statement, "Let's be clear about this. This is not about pornographic images of adults. The Internet has regrettably provided the medium for the exponential growth in these deplorable crimes."

In addition to webcams, Dingell also noted, "Some of these chat rooms provide an opportunity to trade images. Unfortunately, the price of admission is often new material: hence, the ease of contact via the Internet has contributed to the incentives and growth of the horrendous abuse endured by these young victims, usually within their own homes."

Barton promised hard questions for the Department of Justice and other law enforcement officials who are scheduled to testify on Thursday morning.

"I just don't understand it. This is one where you can expect the subcommittee and the full committee, if we need to, to do everything possible," he said. "And I mean everything, not just hold hearings."