ISP Files Federal Suit to Return Servers

Rhett Pardon
IVYLAND, Pa. – A lawsuit that raises questions about the legal rights and responsibilities of Internet service providers, or ISPs, when their subscribers allegedly trade in child pornography is proceeding in Bucks County, Pa.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court, Voicenet Communications Inc. and Omni Telecom Inc. claim that investigators who raided their offices and seized several computer servers in January violated their rights and the rights of their innocent subscribers of Quik Vue.

They say the raid effectively shut down a portion of their business.

No criminal charges have been filed but investigators said in court filings that they want to examine lists of Quik Vue subscribers.

The suit seeks an injunction ordering the return of the servers, alleging that the raid and seizure "constitute an impermissible prior restraint of free speech."

The attorneys representing Voicenet and Omni Telecom have accused prosecutors of ignoring a federal law that generally protects ISPs from criminal liability when their systems are used to disseminate child pornography without their knowledge.

Authorities also violated the Pennsylvania Internet Child Pornography Law since the law includes explicit protections for ISPs, the attorneys said. Under the law, ISPs must be notified by the state Attorney General of the existence of alleged child pornography on their systems and "must be given a chance to disable, block or remove the pornography within five days or face criminal prosecution."

For $9.95 a month, Quik Vue offered access to a search tool that would scour electronic bulletin boards for millions of “uncensored” movies and photographs. The promise was “an all-you-can-eat taste of the Internet gone wild!"

Voicenet said that Quik Vue merely allowed customers to easily access files posted in discussion groups on Usenet, a system of electronic bulletin boards. Executives at the companies said they didn’t know that their system was being used to access child pornography.

The seizure of Voicenet's servers was the first time a Pennsylvania law enforcement agency has stopped an Internet firm from facilitating access to child porn, attorneys said.

But it isn’t the first case of its sort in the nation.

Investigators in New York pressed criminal charges against a pair of ISPs in 1998 for allegedly failing to block access to Usenet groups that contained child pornography. Buffalo, N.Y.-based BuffNet, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation in 2001 and paid a $5,000 fine.

And a federal judge imposed a tougher penalty on a Texas couple convicted in 2000 of operating a service that gave subscribers passwords to overseas websites containing child pornography.

That multi-agency investigation, called Operation Ore, has expanded to Europe with Operation Predator. A judge sentenced Thomas Reedy to life in prison. His wife, who helped run the business, received 14 years.

Prosecutors said that even though the couple didn't post child pornography themselves, they knowingly facilitated access to it and shared their profits with the websites responsible for the illegal material.

The case is Voicenet Communications Inc. vs. Pappert, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6429.