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Opinion response to WSJ Article "Child Predators Make TikTok 'Every Parent's Nightmare'

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The following is an opinion/response that if published is to be under the pen-name "John Peters"

Stopping Online Child Exploitation At The Source

Since the days of the Trump administration, TikTok has received significant attention from Federal and State legislators. Several states have banned the use of TikTok on state issued electronics. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted how child predators use TikTok to groom minors for sexual activity in the article "Child Predators Make TikTok Every Parent's Nightmare" published on February 16, 2023. This reprehensible conduct has plagued social media for years and continues to escalate. Each year, tens of thousands of children have images of their most horrific hour broadcast on social media apps like TikTok, Instagram, Omeggle, Kik and others, preserved for all time on the electronic devices of those who access them. Congress's mandate under Title 18 prosecutes all who produce, create, publish, distribute, receive, access and possess child sex abuse materials (also know as "CSAM") and solicit, entice or make any attempts to lure minors into sexual activity. 99% of those prosecuted by the DOJ receive hefty prison sentences ranging from months to decades. Very few receive probationary sentences. The majority of these individuals had no prior criminal record, were middle class, gainfully employed, white men who were respected in the community, now permanently disgraced for their role in the CSAM market. The secondary victims to these crimes are the families who are torn apart through prison sentences that result from the prosecution of the perpetrators. Very few of the actual abusers who produced the CSAM are brought to justice.

On the other side of this equation is the billion dollar a year social media industry. Despite the pain and suffering caused by the proliferation of CSAM and the use of the internet to groom and lure minors into sexual activity, not a single one of these companies has been held criminally or civilly responsible for being knowingly complicit in facilitating, and in some cases, participating in these crimes. There have been many attempts to hold these companies liable for damages, but most have failed because Title 47, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shields these companies because they are not the "publishers" of the content that passes through their software and servers. In effect, our society is waging a "phoney war" against child exploitation. This is a war that has imprisoned thousands of men and women, with a small percentage of them being actual predators and pedophiles, while the typical offender had an addiction or were themselves a victim of sexual abuse during childhood.  Meanwhile the victims of child pornography continue to be revictimized because their images are still circulating on the internet. In effect, the DOJ is killing the bees swarming around the hive but not taking the hive out. In some cases, the government has knowingly left CSAM material on certain internet sites for the purpose of "catching" more would-be criminals. The government has also been known to setup sting operations with fictitious children for the purpose of luring men (and women) into meeting for illicit activity. The government must stop the deplorable practice of using children as bait and social media platforms as honey pots to lure law abiding citizens to commit a felony.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), in FY2021 there were 29 million reports of online child exploitation involving 85 million images of CSAM with 3.6 million cases of child abuse nationwide. Out of those statistics, the Department of Justice only prosecuted 1,215 offenders who received chillingly long prison sentences. The punishment for any involvement in child abuse or the mere act of accessing images online also includes years of supervision upon release from prison and at least 10 years of registration on the sex offender registry. In addition, even upon completion of that term on the registry, reformed offenders have to register on other states registries when traveling there for a significant period of time. In short, the punishment never ends. The other harsh reality is that some of these offenders are also victims of childhood sexual abuse. The USSC's statistics reveal that children who are sexually abused are 11 times more likely to engage in criminal activity in adolescence or adulthood.

In fiscal year 2022, the Department of Justice spent $35.3 billion. 75% of that budget went to law enforcement, courts and prisons. After the cost of investigating and litigating each individual case involving child exploitation, the taxpayers are on the hook for $135.47 per month to house each convicted felon, most of whom serve sentences measured in years or decades in a punishing environment with few resources devoted to rehabilitation. For those that make it out of prison, there are additional costs with years of probation and monitoring under Megan's Law, all at taxpayer expense.

These numbers may be misleading. First, while any sexual crime or act of exploiting a child needs to be prosecuted, the sheer amount of CSAM on the internet demonstrates that we don't have the resources to prosecute each crime let alone lock up every offender. The notion that draconian prison sentences and use of offender registries will deter crime and make the community safer is a failed policy. Incidences of these crimes are more prevalent now more than ever. Modern technology has either made it easier for child abuse to be revealed or it is encouraging more of it. Like it or not, modern society has sexualized children. Some of today's abuse victims will become tomorrow's criminals, either for a similar sex crime or an unrelated crime resultant of being viscously abused in childhood.

The best way to keep our children and all technology users safe is to attack the problem at the source: social media platforms. Several U.S. Senators including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania have proposed the EARN IT Act, which would re-define the protections granted to social media companies under Section 230. We can protect free speech while holding the facilitators of harmful content criminally liable for what occurs on their systems. Technologically, it is possible to filter out such content using automated means. It is an insult to every victim of child pornography for Congress to not adopt the EARN IT Act. Not only are these victims re-victimized every time their image is traded and viewed, but all victims of a sexual crime are also re-victimized and triggered each time they unknowingly run into content on any of these platforms that condone heinous acts such as child abuse, incest and rape. The only way to win this war is for Congress to hold everyone equally accountable. Courts are grinding out draconian sentences for CSAM crimes committed by former child abuse victims while the CEOs of social media companies sit on record profits from the advertising dollars generated when users view CSAM on their platform. Decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany, German courts finally agreed to hold anyone complicit in the holocaust accountable for the crimes committed against those held in the concentration camps - including officers who contributed to the deaths of the 6 million Jews using pencils instead of guns. Such a model could be applied to the war against digital child exploitation

The war against children goes beyond sex crimes. Children are dying from what they see on Social Media. Take Nylah Anderson of Chester, Pennsylvania who died in 2021 after seeing a "Blackout Challenge" on TikTok. Her family is now seeking justice in Federal Court but has so far been denied because of Section 230. Nylah is one of many children who died from social media content that influenced them. If TikTok and other "apps" can influence a girl to choke herself to death, there's little doubt the app is also creating and fueling other addictions, most notably pornography and CSAM addictions.

Social media is a nuisance and danger to our society that is soaking the taxpayers in the cost of law enforcement operations, arrests, prosecutions, incarceration, probation and ineffective sex offender registries. Most typical offenders are law abiding citizens who were caught up in "sting operations", some of whom are survivors of child sex abuse or battling an addiction brought on by some other life-trauma. The statistics show that a very small percentage of these offenders ever harmed a child or constitute a threat to children. Out of all offenders, sex offenders have the lowest level of recidivism yet are portrayed as the most dangerous. It appears that the current strategy of combating online child exploitation is a losing proposition. Its time to rewrite Section 230 of Title 47 that gives recourse to survivors and holds social media companies and their executives criminally and civilly liable for being complacent in the exploitation of minors on their platform. This plague needs to be cut off at the source.

Oddly enough, when the FBI descended on Mar-a-Lago to seize classified papers from the former President's home, social media was flooded with threats against the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Congresswoman Maloney and Congressman Lynch immediately released a statement urging social media companies "to take immediate action to address any threats of violence against law enforcement that appear on your company's platforms." Why can't we get such a response every time a child or any survivor of childhood sexual abuse is revictimized by social media?

-John Peters is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.