Defended as free speech by some, such pictures are being blasted as a "fix for pedophiles" by a congressman who is waging an uphill campaign to banish them from the Internet.
The pool of photos is growing "at an unabated pace," said Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican.
Foley has authored a bill, now before the House Judiciary Committee, intended to shut down the Web sites by outlawing "exploitive child modeling." Even he concedes, however, that the measure has potential loopholes, and anti-censorship groups say it would likely be struck down as an unconstitutional infringement of free expression.
"It's doomed from the start," said Garry Daniels of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
At Florida-based Webe Web Corp., which runs one of the largest networks of child-modeling sites, co-founder Marc Greenberg says he can't vouch for the motives of his customers. But he insists that no child featured on his sites has suffered any physical harm.
"If I said pedophiles are definitely not looking at these sites, that would be a crock," Greenberg said by phone from his Fort Lauderdale office. "But the majority of people looking at them are not bad people. ... If it's within the law and people want to do it, more power to them."
Greenberg said the girls featured on Webe Web sites wear outfits that could be bought at a typical mall and seen at a public beach or backyard picnic. Critics counter the pictures and videos of girls in swimsuits, leotards and sleepwear are intended to be erotic even while complying with anti-pornography laws.
Webe Web subscribers, who pay about $20 monthly, are not able to chat online with the models or e-mail them directly, Greenberg said. Foley contends some sites do provide direct contacts between customers and children, and worries that models are at risk of abduction, abuse, or even murder.
Any such crimes are covered by existing laws, said Kim Hart of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center in Holland, Ohio.
"This is something best handled case-by-case by child protection services," Hart said. "If there's something of concern, let professionals talk to the girl, look at the background."
Personally, she said, "as a mother, I may not like it. But the question is whether it's illegal, whether it's harmful."
Foley isn't swayed by arguments that any abuse of child models could be prosecuted under current laws. "Taking care of the problem after it occurs — that's when the child is found dead or raped," he said. "My bill is an attempt to ward off problems before they occur."
Several modeling sites assert that the parents' share of profits will go toward their daughters' college tuition. But critics say the parents deserve as much blame as the entrepreneurs.
"Anyone from pedophiles to rapists can pay the monthly subscription fee and lust after the little ones," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women For America. "Why would parents permit such a thing?"
Foley also believes some parents are blameworthy, and suggests others mistakenly think the modeling sites represent a legitimate chance to build a career for their daughters.
Daniels, of the Coalition Against Censorship, agrees that parental ambition is at play. "The parents think, 'Maybe my child is the next Britney Spears,"' he said. "If it takes putting her on the Internet in a bikini, so be it."
Greenberg guesses that 99 percent of parents wouldn't want their children posing on Webe Web sites. However, he says the parents he deals with are comfortable with the arrangements — "They don't have hang-ups" — and are little different than parents who push children into acting or traditional fashion modeling.
"The people we work with don't see anything wrong with this — they think it's fun, and the kids like it," Greenberg said. "They understand everything that goes with it ... they know there are people out there looking at the pictures. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out."
There are scores of child-modeling Web sites, though Foley's staff has been unable to pin down the number or calculate how much money they make.
Foley's bill would impose prison terms of up to 10 years for exploitive child modeling, defined as "marketing the child himself or herself in lascivious positions and acts, rather than actually marketing products."
The bill has possible loopholes, Foley admits. If Webe Web offered T-shirts online with the name of one of its sites, the company could claim the site was marketing a product.
Foley is seeking legal advice to address such problems, but he believes his efforts are worthwhile no matter what happens in Congress or the courts.
"Maybe my bill will never pass," he said. "Half the battle sometimes is to alert the public."