Wednesday, August 16, 2006

If It's Not Real Is It Still Illegal?

A man in the UK has pleaded guilty to child pornography offences and been threatened with jail for manipulating images of adult pornography actors to make the participants look more child-like. According to Ray Savage, Cleveland Police's forensic computer analyst this is, "just as serious as downloading child porn, and probably more worrying in terms of the time taken and work involved to produce such images. In general terms, these images can be as crude as someone having pasted a cut-out of a child's head on to an adult's photo. At the other end of the scale, someone will use sophisticated computer image manipulation equipment to alter the size of the breasts and genitalia to make a very realistic image."

So if find a pornographic image of consenting adults on the internet and write "This girl is six years old" underneath with an arrow pointing to one of the performers have I committed the same offence? The performer is manifestly not a child but similarly in the photo described by Mr Savage, neither is a doctored image of what is patently an adult's body with a child's head and that according to the police expert would be illegal.

I suppose one could argue that one of the reasons for this legislation is that any image of a "child" in a sexual situation whether real or faked could act as fodder for a paedophile but the notion that any image that places the notion of childhood and sex in the same frame is a child abuse offence does not seem to make much sense to me. What about a regular photograph of a child placed next to a pornographic image of adults? Does this make enough of a connection between the two ideas to be illegal? I do not see that much difference between this and the crudely pasted "cut-out of a child's head on to an adult's photo" example.

From the Times' article :

The court was told that under the Protection of Children Act 1978, as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, a pseudophotograph of a child is defined as an image, whether made by computer graphics or otherwise, which appears to be that of a child.

I read this as meaning that it is the realism of the image that defines its illegality therefore my annotated text example and the "crude cut-out" of Savage's could not be considered illegal - they are manifestly not showing a child. To extrapolate further; a stick-figure drawing of a child performing a sex act would not be considered a crime under this law. The difficulty arises in where the law kicks in, or to put it another way, how "real" does the image have to be before it is an offence? From the examples provided by the police it would appear that some sort of photographic quality must be present, even if it is two elements badly composited together. Is that more illegal than a painting by a hyper-realist artist since it contains "real" people, even if manipulated? I cannot see how this type of law can be applied with any degree of consistency. I can look at almost any photo and tell you whether it has been digitally doctored or not because it's my job to know how that works. A general member of the public would be more easily duped. Whose level of credularity should we use as a bench-mark for this "realism" test? It is impossible.

Savage's comment that making one of these images is "just as serious as downloading child porn" also seems questionable to me. If we assume that by "child porn" he means an image of actual child being abused then I must disagree with him. If the serious penalties that this law provides for exist as a deterrent to those who would be tempted otherwise to go out and actually abuse children and film them I have no difficulty with its tough sentences. The law is "The Protection of Children Act" after all. If someone paints an utterly convincing picture of a child involved in a sex act then undoubtedly they have questionable taste, and possibly ought to consult a psychologist, but they are not complicit in child abuse, unlike someone who downloads child porn manifestly is.

This application of the law is very troubling to me. When no child has been abused how can you invoke a law whose purpose is to punish precisely that? It does demonstrate the power of the image but mostly it shows a worrying pandering to the screaming headline writers of the tabloids whose ill-advised campaigns are far more concerned with newspaper sales than with any notion of child protection. We have to ask ourselves what is next if creating an image of something is treated in the same way as actually having done it.

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