After two recent child murders, pressure is building to prevent internet access of child pornography. This crusade follows the case of five-year-old April Jones, abducted and murdered by convicted paedophile Mark Bridger, who searched online for images of child rape before the killing, and 12-year-old Tia Sharp murdered last August by Stuart Hazell, who also used internet child sex abuse images.
But government interference with search engines on this emotive issue runs the risk of doing little to prevent crime, and instead could play into the hands of those who want to interfere with the internet in order to snoop on the public.
This is the contention of one of the country's leading experts in forensic psychology, Dr Vincent Egan currently at the University of Leicester, but soon to become Associate professor in forensic psychology at Nottingham University.
Egan points out that one difficulty with stopping access to web pages with indecent content involving children, is that paedophilic offenders may find euphemisms and code words to tag photographic content, so only they know them. Then the authorities would be always playing 'catch up' to them.
Egan's experience is that most indecent searches involve normal language, as was the case for Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell. Child and violent pornography are already illegal, Egan points out, but controlling prohibited content from being acquired over internet servers is a complex legal area. It is not always clear under which jurisdiction content is held.
Moreover, he argues, a search for 'child + blood + rectum' may mean different things to a mother, doctor, and paedophile. Google may decide to not recognise queries with particular keywords, and so block the search.
According to Egan, this generates problems - is such a query legitimate or prurient? Even if such searches are outlawed, this just means the search and content are moved to another internet service provider. Paradoxically, these other types of browser and communications were developed as a means for individuals in less free and democratic countries to be able to communicate.
To reduce the risks to children, Egan argues keep the laws as they are, enforce them more systematically where they are identified as being breached, and provide more money and access by appropriate academics to research these topics. Then we can be more confident of the effect on an individual of viewing child pornography.
Vincent Egan and Reena Parmar have just published a study entitled 'Dirty Habits? Online Pornography Use, Personality, Obsessionality, and Compulsivity'.
A previous study of 600 men convicted of downloading indecent images of children found that they fell into one of three clusters: antisocial, emotionally unstable, or normal according to psychological testing. The latter alluded to being drawn to indecent material out of curiosity, when idly surfing the internet. But is that really true?
These so-called 'innocent' viewers scored higher on the 'impression management' and 'self-deception' measures, suggesting they may want to present to others and themselves as being more honourable than they really were. Nevertheless, Egan points out, 'bad men do what good men dream', so perhaps they remained more emotionally stable and less deviant than the others, but continued to do the wrong thing (viewing indecent pictures of children).
Since this study suggested others may be sidetracked into inappropriate content by curiosity or compulsivity, Egan and Parmar were attempting to investigate whether the internet is a corrupting influence, or simply flagging up preferences that would be pursued by other means anyway.
Egan and Parmar found in their study, just published in the 'Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy', that greater computer, sexual and internet pornography use was explainable by underlying addictive, compulsive and obsessional personality types. This finding leans towards the view that habitual internet pornography use results from a certain compulsive personality, rather than the pornography being a corrupting influence.
Egan points out that previous research has found generally, that the malign effects of pornography are dependent on how unpleasant a person is to start with. The association between pornography consumption and holding abusive attitudes toward women is primarily seen in men with more antisocial personalities.
Egan and Parmar contend that previous research suggests that when women use pornography, it's seen as an adjunct to lovemaking, raising the quality of sex for both persons. On the other hand, they cite other studies finding that men who are more preoccupied by pornography often have unrealistic expectations of sex and sexual intercourse, and false comparison may contribute to female negative self-image, disrupting relationships.
Egan contends that perverts so inclined used to look at the children's clothes pages of mainstream shopping catalogues, and to take photographs on beaches of children running around naked. They often preferred naturalistic to sexually posed images; so Egan poses the question, how could we stop people posting on Facebook pictures of their children on the beach?
Egan argues that apologists for the sexualising of children often allude to archaic societies such as Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet the civilizations which condoned such activity were brutal, oppressive and exploitative.
Child pornography already functions beyond a world of regulation, and private individuals and organised crime generate the content. The images themselves are filmed criminal offences; already prosecuted if detected.
Regulating Internet Service Providers (ISP) to not host or link to such content is one way forward, perhaps also fining them if they breach regulations. Nations could withdraw an ISP's licence if rules were broken, just as a food provider may lose a licence to sell their product, if found to be contaminated.
Egan points out that just as there are seedy things happening in the back streets of even the most respectable city, so there are likely to remain pockets of unpleasant things in the darker corners of the Web, and it would the ISP's responsibility to monitor their 'back streets'.
In the long run, for any problem behaviour, internal psychological controls make external regulatory controls less necessary, and so lessens the likelihood of more state restrictions, interference and snooping.
Egan concludes there is a need to act to stop the problems of child pornography and related child abuse getting worse, but a better understanding of why the reprehensible behaviour occurs, and how it may change, is vital.
This then directs interventions more likely to be effective in stopping it in the first place.