Identifying Those Responsible for a “Living Horror” and Its Signficance for Proposed Federal Law
In what can only be described as the worst side of humanity, the bulletin board Dreamboard hosted a members-only sharing of child pornography, particularly of children under 12. New members could join the board only if they posted child pornography. Members had to continue to post images of child porn every 50 days or face removal. The rules of the board, printed in English, Russian, Japanese, and Spanish, included: (1) “Keep the girls under 13, in fact, I really need to see 12 or younger to know your[sic] a brother,” (2) “don’t avoid nudity in previews. I will NOT accept you if there’s no nudity. And my definition of nudity is pussy or anal in the shot. You just waste your own time if you don’t do this. Because you will not get in, if you don’t follow the rules.” One section of Dreamboard was titled “Super Hardcore,” and the rules required images and videos of “very young kids, getting fucked, and preteens in distress, and or crying. . . . If a girl looks totally comfortable, she’s not in distress, and it does NOT belong in this section.” This part of the site featured images of adults having violent sexual intercourse with very young children, including infants. One file was entitled “2yo assfuck she cries for mommy nasty pthc pedo 1 yo 3 yo 4 yo.” The board amassed over 120 terabytes of violent sexual rape and abuse of children.
According to the rules of the site, members were to use encryption technologies to prevent detection. The rules specified precisely which encryption technologies and proxy servers should be used and which should be avoided. Members did not use their real names, but instead screen names to conceal their identities. All of this suggests that the board went to great lengths to secure their anonymity.
Early this month, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. announced that federal investigators has charged 72 people for violating child pornography laws and more than 50 people have been arrested in the United States. The defendants included doctors, lawyers, police officers, and a Navy commander, according to the Ellis County Observer. Thirteen of those charged have pled guilty, and four members have been sentenced between 20 and 30 years. Around 600 people from around the world were members of the bulletin board, which has been shut down. The bulletin board used a server in Atlanta. As Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer explained, the site “was a living horror.” John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to say how investigators overcame the technological precautions used by some of the members. He did tell the New York Times: “To those inclined to abuse small children, know this: this isn’t a place on the Internet or the planet in which you are truly safe. It may take us some time, it may take us some effort, but we will find you regardless of a screen name, a proxy server or an encryption effort, period.”
The Dreamboard bulletin board hosted a pernicious cyber mob, whose members egged each other on to commit more and more depraved acts. They provided tips on the steps involved in grooming a child, and lauded members who hosted particularly violent sexual abuse on very young children. The younger, and more distressed the child, the greater applause and access to the site. Some of the worst of the worst of humanity, making it difficult to even describe.
The DOJ executed the recent arrests just days after the House Judiciary Committee approved the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (“the Act”), which would require ISPs to implement certain data retention requirements. Under the bill, ISPs would be required to keep the IP addresses assigned to their subscribers for at least a year to help authorities track down individuals who were violating child pornography laws. As the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explains, police can access an individual’s Internet history if the person is suspected of a crime, no probable cause is needed.
The Dreamboard indictments, arriving on the heels of the Act’s house committee approval, raise a number of questions, ones that implicate my advocacy of traceable anonymity (which took cues from Dan Solove’s Future of Reputation) and Paul Ohm‘s important criticism that trading traceability anonymity for section 230 immunity would be like throwing Napalm when a surgical strike would do, or something creative like that. A key question is whether the arrests show that the Act’s data retention requirements may be unnecessary. Does the Act buy us too little and cost us too much? As the arrests show, law enforcement can find child pornographers, even those who engage in the most sophisticated practices to remain hidden. Conor Friedersdorf argues that the Act may lead us down a slippery slope to J. Edgar Hoover and the potential for government abuse of the massive ISP databases. He also wisely worries that massive mandated databases are rife for the picking by the group Anonymous, which by my lights isn’t more than a group of bigoted thugs who have fooled the media into believing they are “hacktivists.” (More on Anonymous on the blog and my future book Cyber Civil Rights: Combating Hate in the Information Age). Does this discussion cast doubt on the notion that Internet intermediaries should retain IP addresses in order to enjoy Section 230’s immunity from liability for the postings of others? Should we instead think about a notice and track regime, with a proviso to punish those who seek to abuse the privilege?