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How hard is it to ‘accidentally’ download child porn?

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John Grisham stirred controversy with a statement he made to a reporter about child porn offenders earlier this week. 

John Grisham, the author of such thrillers as A Time To Kill and The Firm, had fans on the edge of their seats earlier this week with a shocking statement about child pornography: that it’s easy to stumble across on the Internet, and we shouldn’t prosecute those who have viewed it “accidentally.”

Here’s what Grisham said to a reporter from the Independent, during a discussion about overly harsh prison sentences and unjust imprisonment:

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child …

“But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.”

Grisham’s sympathy for convicted pedophiles apparently stems from personal experience: In the interview, he describes a friend from law school who was arrested during a Canadian child porn sting operation:

“His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled ‘sixteen year old wannabee [sic] hookers or something like that’. And it said ’16-year-old girls’. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff—it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.

“He shouldn’t ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn’t 10-year-old boys. He didn’t touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people—sex offenders—and he went to prison for three years.”

To be fair to Grisham, his comments didn’t constitute a defense of pedophilia in itself: In fact, he was careful to note that he had “no sympathy for real pedophiles,” and we should “lock those people up.” But unsurprisingly, many people took offense to his comments, accusing him of painting an inaccurate portrait of how easy it is to stumble across child pornography on the Internet out of misplaced loyalty to his friend. “In reality, it seems less like Grisham’s friend is not guilty and more like Grisham has a problem reconciling the fact that someone he likes would be sexually attracted to children,” Jezebel wrote.

But assuming that Grisham’s comments were in good faith, and he truly believes his friend’s story, how believable is it? Put another way, how easy is it exactly to be casually searching for mainstream fap material, and accidentally stumble across child porn on the Internet?

As it turns out, it’s really not that easy at all. Although there’s a terrifyingly large amount of child pornography on the Internet—according to Justice Department figures, 21 million unique IP addresses traded child porn in 2009 alone—it’s not something you can just stumble across on Google or Pornhub. (In fact, most professional porn producers are vociferous in their opposition to child pornography and adhere to federal record-keeping requirements to ensure their performers are of age.)

“Child porn isn’t something you generally just stumble upon,” Patrick O’Neill, my colleague who covers Internet freedom and the Deep Web for the Daily Dot, explained to me. “All major search engines filter it with prominent legal warnings and offerings of help to pedophiles. Mainstream porn sites guard against known illegal media. Even on the anonymous Deep Web, which is infamous for its child porn offerings, it’s always clearly labeled as both a warning or signpost.”

Additionally, many major websites and peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing systems require new users to upload child porn before allowing them to download other users’ content. While that’s not necessarily a barrier in itself for the hardcore pedophile—it’s mostly meant as a way to prevent trolls and journalists from accessing these forums, O’Neill says—it certainly puts a dent in Grisham’s argument that prisons are now “filled” with men who accidentally stumbled on pedophilic content.

It’s easy to dismiss Grisham’s comments as reflecting a lack of understanding about the Internet and how finding porn works. But in truth, it also reflects a naïveté toward the darker aspects of human nature—which is somewhat surprising, given his vocation. “Grisham’s story isn’t really about mistakenly finding child porn as far as I can tell,” O’Neill says. “The problem wasn’t a misclicked link, it was too much alcohol and not enough empathy [for the victims].”

Photo via phlyingpenguin/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.