Back in September, an undercover cop, fronting as a student named “John,” sent a concerned e-mail to two Internet service providers (ISPs) in upstate New York. While doing research for a “course,” John had retrieved postings from a public newsgroup— alt.binaries.pictures. erotica.pre-teen— and found images that “depict children as young as 4 years old engaged in sexual acts with adults,” he wrote. “Is this legal? Can I get in trouble by downloading this stuff? What is your policy?” Reps for both ISPs, BuffNET and Dreamscape, sent replies to the effect that owning or distributing obscene material of kids in action is illegal and yes, you can get nailed. Proceed at your own risk.
The risk, as it turns out, was all theirs. On October 27, state police arrived at the offices of both companies and confiscated their news servers, which distributed the data from the newsgroup. Attorney General Dennis Vacco ordered the raid as part of an international sting on a Byzantine kiddie-porn ring that called itself “Pedo University” and operated through the newsgroup. “BuffNET and Dreamscape were in possession of criminal images and a search warrant was executed,” says Marc Wurzel, Vacco’s spokesperson. Thirteen people, from New Zealand to Rhode Island, were ultimately arrested, while BuffNET and Dreamscape lost, albeit temporarily, $15,000 worth of equipment and saw their reputations take a nosedive. Though Wurzel stresses that the companies are “not subject to criminal charges at this time,” the damage is done. “I’m an assistant scoutmaster and I coach soccer,” says BuffNET VP Mark Hassett. “I’m upset that a 20-second soundbite [from the AG] can put doubt in the people’s mind.”
But what’s the connection between BuffNET, Dreamscape, and the now-adjourned “PU”? It’s impossible to tie the service providers to PU directly— the “pre-teen” newsgroup is carried by a large number of ISPs, from the Queens-based Brainlink to Manhattan’s Echo. (As a counterpoint, Panix filters it, but keeps another, alt.sex.pre-teen).
Wurzel attests that an FAQ instruction sheet posted in the newsgroup guided newbies to ISPs that didn’t filter, and he believes this is one of the reasons BuffNET and Dreamscape were targeted. Still, the seizure of their hardware— the first such act by Vacco— seems strangely misguided, like blaming the jimmied window for the burglary.
Connect the dots and all lines lead straight to the ballot box. The warrant came a scant week before Vacco’s November 3 reelection bid against Democratic contender Eliot Spitzer. Nothing like a porn sting to burnish and boost the profile. But why BuffNET and Dreamscape?
The ISPs themselves are irrelevant— try location. BuffNET, outside Buffalo, and Dreamscape, in Syracuse, offered surgically precise targets for Vacco’s campaign to attract much-needed upstate voters. Though Spitzer appeared to be edging ahead as of presstime (absentee ballots were still being counted), the strategy did get Vacco good copy. But, while he basked in the publicity surrounding the bust of PU, lingering questions about the attack on the two ISPs remain.
As usual, small ISPs are the scapegoats of Internet law: steamrolled by authorities, cowed by litigious customers, and now, with Vacco’s campaign, somehow accountable for the bit-stream of criminals. The
reasons for Vacco’s jackleg dragnet seem even more absurd considering the real
perpetrators aren’t exactly hiding. Drop
into alt.fan.prettyboy or other newsgroups where regulars like “Boyeur,” “KiddyFukPics,” and “Peachfuzz” publicly extol the virtues of “munchkinz”— the trade is going on right in front of you. The only catch is that the clans of child-porn traffickers are notoriously migratory and difficult to
map. Just last week, the core group in alt.fan.prettyboy recently moved their “fort,” colonizing an unrelated software newsgroup, alt.bbs.jds.
Evidently, names aren’t very good red flags, and attempting to screen using them is like putting “a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery,” says BuffNET’s Hassett. (To wit, BuffNET itself attempts to weed out by hand 20 to 25 newsgroups with “ped” in their names, but the ISP still got nailed.) Some of the worst material crops up in the least likely places. Hassett recalls browsing through a Disney newsgroup and finding photos of “Snow White being a little more active with the dwarves than she should be.”
So far Vacco, whose investigation is “ongoing,” hasn’t managed to scare New York City ISPs. Stacy Horn, head of the bulletin board and local ISP Echo, has never had a run-in with the AG’s office and calls Vacco’s actions “stupid.” Only now it’s too late to turn that derision into political action. “You’d think the attorney general would have done his homework before getting active,” BuffNET’s Mike Hassett says. “The irony is, the guy had my vote.”
Signal and Noise