Prosecutors Try to Halt ISP Suit During Child Porn Probe

Prosecutors Try to Halt ISP Suit During Child Porn Probe
Rhett Pardon
IVYLAND, Pa. – Bucks County prosecutors have asked a judge to freeze a free speech lawsuit brought by an Internet service provider while a grand jury probes whether the company and its subsidiary distributed child pornography.

Voicenet Communications Inc. and one of its units, Omni Telecom Inc., sued the state and two county district attorneys last winter after investigators seized computer servers that subscribers had been using to browse pictures posted on Usenet, a global network of electronic bulletin boards.

Voicenet says the raid effectively shut down a portion of its business.

U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin had planned to issue a key ruling on the complaint last week, but a Bucks County district attorney stalled the decision with a letter earlier this month that revealed that a grand jury had been convened and asked that all rulings in the civil case be stopped until the probe was finished.

The grand jury was “a charade, done for improper and vindictive purposes,” and suggested it was convened for the sole purpose of derailing the civil case, Voicenet attorneys said in a court filing.

“This court cannot countenance, let alone reward the Bucks County district attorney for improperly manipulating the county investigating grand jury for [its] own purposes,” the filing said.

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.

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.”

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.

McLaughlin scheduled a hearing on the matter for Tuesday.

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