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Bloody Massacres and Suicide -- They're Just a Click Away

A crazed mob beats an accused rapist with baseball bats before setting him on fire. Soldiers open fire on a crowd in Cote d'Ivoire, and a bystander films the bloodied corpses in close-up.

These are images mainstream media organizations deem too graphic to broadcast or print.

But you're on the Internet, which means they're all a click away — available for your viewing "pleasure" on so-called "shock sites," which traffic in violent and gruesome video from around the globe.

Some of the sites pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers each month, according to compete.com, a Web site that monitors Internet traffic.

"The troublesome side of the Internet is extremes are more easily accessible," said David Walsh, president of the National Institute for Media and the Family. "People get more desensitized and the extremes go further and further out — the suicide chat rooms and people watching suicides and animal mutilations."

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Under U.S. law, Web sites are not criminally liable for the content they post online unless the content violates a specific statute, such as those pertaining to child pornography, or it infringes on an existing copyright, said Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School.

"Now the producers of the video," he said, "that's a different story."

On one shock site, which offers videos like "Nazi beheadings" and "Russian soldiers tortured," viewers can watch three Ukrainian teenagers murder a man in a grassy meadow with a hammer and screwdriver. The video has turned into something of an Internet sensation, as the three young men have since been arrested and tried for committing a series of brutal killings around their home city of Dnenpropetrovsk.

The proprietor of the site that posted the video, reached by telephone in northern England, identified himself as David Hall. By day he works at a prison, instructing inmates on bricklaying. By night he manages the videos and comments posted by members of his Web site.

"People find [the videos] on other sites, some they get themselves," he said. "A lot of it comes from China and South America. They don't have as many restrictions."

Financially speaking, shock sites occupy a small and somewhat self-sustaining niche of Internet economy. They don't charge users to watch the videos, and the little advertising space they sell is primarily to pornographic Web sites.

The owner of one of the most-trafficked shock sites, who identified himself as Dan Salamone, 26, of Rochester, N.Y., said most of his income comes from linking his site to other shock sites.

While he wouldn't disclose how much money his site makes, Salamone said it was comparable to what he earned as a construction worker.

"A site like ours, we can't get the big advertising companies with the content we have," he said. "They wouldn't even touch us."

There is a general understanding among shock site proprietors that the videos they showcase don't fit within the general public's ideas of good taste. Hall, for instance, decided not to tell his family about his hobby after he saw some of his friends' negative reactions.

But he defends his site and others like it. "If we find anyone's underage, we ban them automatically," he said. "But everyone has their own point of view about what's acceptable. It's just curiosity."

But whatever efforts are made to keep teenagers away from adult sites, kids have proven remarkably adept at staying ahead of whatever roadblocks are put in front of them.

Companies like ContentWatch Inc., creator of the computer program Net Nanny, sell online filters to control what young children and teenagers can access on the Internet. Through the application of textual analysis algorithms, which seek out illicit combinations of words, parents can prevent their children from entering chat rooms where sexual predators might roam, as well as block out sites with violent and pornographic content.

But there are limits.

"There's no silver bullet. No filter can block everything," said Peter Ferioli, general manager of ContentWatch. "Nowadays people can swap Web sites and domain names very easily. And the kids definitely try to get around the filters."

The latest trick in teenagers' repertoire is seemingly innocuous proxy sites that redirect to banned sites without setting off a Web filter.

Activists like Walsh worry that repeated exposure to the violent images of the sort contained in "shock sites" are creating a generation of children for whom violence carries no significant meaning.

"There are studies that show kids have a lot less of a reaction to real-world violence if they've watched a lot of violence in the media," said Walsh, who is a psychologist.

"It can start to morph over into real life. People start to create their own extreme content. Right here in Minneapolis there have been cases of kids involved in backyard fight clubs and attacks on the homeless, where they've filmed it and put it online."

In England, members of Hall's website often get together, though for far less incendiary purposes. They travel from all over the country for parties and stay at each other's homes. Some have even gotten married.

"It's like a community," Hall said. "Sometimes we talk about the videos, but a lot of the time we're just talking about other people on the site."