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Chat Room Chaperone

Barry Crimmins, who tracked AOL's child porn problem, isn't your typical online morality cop
By David Cassel

David Cassel is a freelance writer with strong opinions about America Online. Previously in MetroActive, he explained why AOL sucks.

Barry Crimmins is an unlikely speaker at a Congressional hearing. A political satirist since the Watergate era, the bearded, curly-haired essayist and comedian describes himself as a "quintessential outsider." He talks slowly, deliberately choosing his words. "I'm not a journalist, per se," he says.

Yet last July, Crimmins found himself testifying about child pornographers who distribute material via America Online--two months before the FBI raided 120 homes and arrested a dozen AOL users. AOL stock dropped 2-1/2 points after the story of the raid broke in the papers earlier this month. "Fifty cents of that was mine," jokes Crimmins.

Crimmins turned his attention to AOL in 1994. As he later would tell Congress, while browsing AOL's chat rooms, he found some rather odd--and strategically located--discussion groups. "The first time I found the Abuse Survivors' room," he explains, "it was located between a room called 'DadsNDaughtrs' and another entitled 'lilboypix.'"

Outraged, Crimmins launched a personal, six-month investigation, collecting examples of child pornography trafficked on AOL. He passe his findings on to federal law enforcement authorities, who were already involved in an investigation of porn traffic on AOL.

From the sound of it, any number of morality watchdogs could have done the same--and probably drummed up more publicity for themselves in the process. But Crimmins is a rather unusual anti-pornography crusader.

For one thing, he has none of the conservative credentials usually associated with anti-porn monitors--and he's no re-educated neocon, either. For his organizing against the Persian Gulf War, he earned The Boston Area Mobilization for Survival's 1991 "Peace Leadership Award." ("There was very little competition," he quips.) And New England's Community Works consortium recently honored him with the "Artist for Change" award.

For Crimmins, it's been a long, strange, trip from political comedian to children's rights advocate. Though he grew up in conservative upstate New York during the 1960s, "all that subversive stuff worked on me--rock and roll, Hunter Thompson, Doonesbury," he explains. Crimmins got his start in comedy winning second prize at talent show in a New Hampshire bar. In 1979 he founded Boston's first full-time comedy club, the Ding Ho, which spawned comedy notables like Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwaite.

His liberal credentials earned him the opening spot on Jackson Browne's 1988 tour, and he was always willing to perform for benefits. He went on to write for the short-lived Dennis Miller show.

But then something changed his life's focus. Through conversations with his sister, Crimmins recovered memories of being raped as an infant. That disturbing realization led to his acclaimed story for the Boston Phoenix, "Baby Rape."

In Crimmins's personal case, the abuser "got put away three different times and died in prison." The memories of his abuse as a child--Crimmins explained to Congress that he wasn't abused by a family member--forced him to make a difficult decision. "When you know the truth, you have two choices," he says. "Tell it and risk the disdain of others, or don't tell it, and be assured of your own self-loathing."

Consequently, Crimmins decided to become an activist for children's safety.

Reaction to the Boston Phoenix article was largely positive, but some critics suggested that Crimmins might have been influenced by "false memory syndrome," apparently unaware that Crimmins's recollections are corroborated by family members. "People can relate to the falsely-accused, and they can't relate to raped babies," he offers. Ironically, years earlier Crimmins had named a recording of his political satire, "Kill the Messenger."

The Boston Phoenix story earned Crimmins a Peace Abbey/Wellesly College Courage of Conscience award, along with Maya Angelou in 1994. Six months later, he bought a computer, and discovered the private child pornography chat rooms on AOL. (Crimmins believes that AOL has allocated far too few resources to keep up with all the rooms their users create. AOL president Steve Case essentially admitted the same last January, noting that "We simply cannot keep up with the sheer volume of rooms created, and as a result, from time to time rooms that violate [AOL terms of service] remain open for some period of time.")

Sometimes, Crimmins posed as a 12-year-old computer user. "At one point," he recalls, "a particularly sick individual sent me so much child pornography that it took 8-1/2 hours to download it." During his investigation, Crimmins spent thousands of dollars of his own money. And he was walking a thin legal line--possession of child pornography is illegal, and private citizens aren't supposed to seek it out. But Crimmins made sure several people in positions of authority knew what he was doing.

Crimmins passed along hundreds of pictures to the federal authorities, doing what he could to aid them in their investigation. "The cops and prosecutors I've dealt with are great. Because they're doing the work." They understand the problem, he says. "I think the laws that already exist are adequate," he adds. "I think they just need to be enforced.

I ask Crimmins about AOL's role in cracking down on the child pornography chat rooms. "They've actually managed to spin what happened" to garner favorable publicity, he says. "As if compliance with federal subpoenas is some kind of altruistic act."

Crimmins disclaims any vindication in the recent FBI raids "The silence is broken," he says, "and that makes me glad. Fewer kids will be abused. Some kids that would've gotten abused won't be. They're gonna have regular lives."

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