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Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. March 28, 2024.

Editorial: New laws will protect Wisconsin children

We're sure one of the headlines this week generated more than one ''Wait, what?'' reaction. The fact Wisconsin had to take action to block artificially generated child pornography and creation of sex dolls made to depict children surely had people shaking their heads.

Unfortunately, this kind of issue is something we're going to have to address as a society as technology continues to develop. And, if you think about it, laws the state had on the books simply weren't equipped to address the issue.

Most people would agree without hesitation that child pornography is inherently problematic. The sexualization and abuse of children is unacceptable in civilized society, and images depicting such acts are rightly criminalized.

Traditionally, the laws that address those issues center on the fact those images represent the victimization of a real person. They depict actual abuse. But if AI is used to generate photorealistic images of people who don't exist, there isn't an actual victim and the prohibition is significantly weakened.

The laws signed this week make it clear that such depictions are so intrinsically repugnant that the presence of a person isn't the sole issue. The fact of the image's existence is itself a problem. The claim that ''it's just a set of pixels'' doesn't remove society's justified revulsion, nor does it allow someone who possesses it to evade legal consequences.

Similar factors play into the question of sex dolls representing minors. There's no person being victimized, but the act of playing out such a fantasy is itself something society has said has no place.

Wade Newell, Chippewa County's district attorney, said the new laws close off a loophole that people did in fact use when they were prosecuted. That doesn't surprise us.

Regrettably, there's a clear market for such products. There are a number of active cases making their way through the courts in which people stand accused of possessing child pornography. The same technology that makes it easier to trace the images makes it easier for people to access them.

Possession of child pornography in Wisconsin is a serious offense, a Class D felony that can result in a quarter-century behind bars. Most sentences are shorter — that's true of virtually every charge that has a maximum prison term specified — but the potential is real. Society takes the crime seriously, and that's reflected in the law.

There's one other thing we should note about these new laws, and it's a more cheerful point. These bills didn't pass because one party decided to ram through legislation. They received significant bipartisan support. That's encouraging.

Wisconsin legislators have a well-earned reputation for bickering and failure to act on legislation even when there's significant support from both parties. That's something we've criticized. This wasn't one of the times when legislators allowed their worst instincts to come into play. This was a case in which they saw a need to act to protect children and did so without regard to partisanship.

As we've said before, when things go right there's usually plenty of praise to go around. That's the case here. The legislators who voted to advance these bills for the governor's signature deserve credit for having done so. These laws will have an effect, and it will benefit Wisconsin residents.

Much as we might wish it were otherwise, there's probably always going to be a need for laws