- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Internet can bring people a continent away together. It can empower Americans to spread their ideas and innovations across the globe. But the Internet also allows child pornographers to take advantage of speed and anonymity to exploit vulnerable young people and spread horrifying images across the Web.

If you don’t believe the Internet can cause such harm, all you have to do is listen to Masha’s story. When she was just 5, Masha was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a man who began sexually abusing her the night she arrived. Today, after escaping the horrors of this abuse, Masha has come forward to tell her story and raise awareness so others are spared her unspeakable experiences.

This courageous 13-year-old has worked tirelessly to close loopholes in child pornography laws that allow predators to download pornographic images of children without significant penalties. All parents owe her a debt of gratitude.

The Senate and House are drafting child exploitation legislation, and Masha’s Law should be a critical component of any new bill passed.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, child pornography has become a multibillion-dollar Internet industry, and — worse still — the tools available to law enforcement are years behind the evolving technology used by child pornographers to escape detection.

The real problem with child pornography is that it prolongs the child abuse indefinitely — long after the child is rescued, as Masha was, from the abusive home. Not only was Masha physically abused, but her adoptive father preserved that abuse to revisit himself and to share with the world. This despicable man is in jail but pedophiles spread his revolting photographs across the Web.

For thousands who have suffered abuse as Masha has, the knowledge that such photographs are still out there is a nagging reminder of the horrors they have endured, a persistent source of hurt and shame. For criminals, it is a financial incentive to shatter more lives by creating and selling more exploitative photos.

Adding civil penalties on top of prison sentences is an appropriate response to a crime whose wounds show up not only in the initial crime but also in the repeated trafficking of images that follows.

That’s why I wrote “Masha’s Law,” which I have introduced along with Sen. John Isakson, Georgia Republican. Our bill will triple civil penalties for anyone who downloads child pornography off the Internet, raising it from $50,000 to $150,000. If Masha’s Law passes, the penalty for downloading child pornography will at least equal the penalty for illegally downloading a song from the Internet.

Our bill will also fix a serious loophole in the existing law. Now, the law does not allow victims to receive damages once they become adults — even if their childhood images are still being downloaded. Our bill clarifies that victims over 18 can still sue for damages if those pictures remain in circulation. This common-sense correction ensures child predators cannot rest easy once their victims turn 18.

Masha and I stood side by side earlier this year as we introduced this important legislation at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

As a father, I am so proud of Masha for speaking out to protect other children. She has a maturity and strength that defies her years. She spoke directly about her own terrible experiences and her hope no other child should ever have to endure the same.

We cannot undo the hurt Masha lives with every day, but we need to pursue every avenue of justice. We owe it to Masha and to every other child who has suffered from sexual abuse to do everything in our power to protect them. And we need to send a message to child pornographers that they will be punished severely.

John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, is a member of the United States Senate.

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