Court Asks for Evidence in ISP-Child Porn Probe

Rhett Pardon
PITTSBURGH — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, ruling in an emergency application, has ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine if a grand jury probe can proceed against an Internet service provider that has been charged with distributing child pornography.

Northampton, Pa.-based Voicenet Communications Inc. and its subsidiary, Omni Telecom, have tried to stop a criminal investigation by stating that investigators wrongly targeted them and violated the companies' rights of free speech.

Lawyers for the companies have argued that ISPs are merely conduits of information found on the Internet and not responsible for the content.

The court’s majority opinion said Friday that a Bucks County judge must hold an evidentiary hearing.

Earlier this year, district attorney investigators from Bucks and Delaware counties, as well as the state’s Attorney General's Office, seized computers and servers from Voicenet's corporate offices.

Authorities said in court documents that Voicenet and Omni distributed child porn on global bulletin board Usenet. The companies sold access to Usenet through software called "Quikvue."

Later, a Bucks County judge who supervises the grand jury denied the company's motion to halt the criminal investigation, which prompted Voicenet to take its case to higher court.

Voicenet asked for reconsideration, saying that a recent federal court ruling determined the government cannot regulate the content of an ISP.

U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois ruled in that case that today’s technology can’t be implemented “without excessive blocking of innocent speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

The state enacted a law in 2002 that gave the attorney general the power to fine ISPs up to $30,000 and hand out jail terms of up to seven years to company executives who don’t block customers from viewing anything over the Internet that had been identified by the state as containing illegal content.

The attorney general’s office searched the Internet for child porn and also set up a web page that allowed Pennsylvania residents to report instances of child porn.

The office then sent about 500 informal notices to those ISPs, asking the ISPs to disable their subscribers’ access to the sites, according to court papers. The ISPs generally wrote in response that they had complied with the notice.

The Pennsylvania law, collectively known as §§ 7621-7630, gave an ISP five days to block access to the website after receiving notice.

In Friday’s ruling, the court sided with Voicenet, ordering the county court to hold a hearing.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ron Castille said the majority justices' "unexplained about-face will further enmesh us in an unnecessary and ill-advised micro management of the grand jury proceeding."

The case is In Re Bucks County Investigating Grand Jury, No. 119MM2004.