As a criminal defense attorney in federal and Texas state courts, I have dealt with numerous cases of allegations known as “crimes against children,” primarily have to do with the online conduct of citizens that run afoul of the law. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal law enforcement agencies getting aggressive in these cases. The FBI is setting up child porn websites, trading child pornography online through “peer to peer” applications, and posing online as parents who are offering their children for sex.
There is a lot of research on the effects of pornography viewing. A 2011 study of the 400 million web searches between July 2009 and July 2010 revealed that:
- 13% of all the searches were for erotic content.
- The top search term for those searches was “youth.”
- Sites that cater to these searches use terms like “barely legal” and “18.”
And a lot of those sites contain images of, or links to websites that provide, child pornography.
Playpen was a “darknet” child pornography website created in August 2014. When the FBI shut down in February 2015, the site had over 215,000 users and hosted 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children as young as toddlers. In its shutdown of that site, operation Pacifier, the FBI took it over and continued to serve child pornography content for two weeks. The FBI used a malware-based network investigative technique to hack into the web browsers of users accessing the site, discovering information that eventually revealed the users’ identities. Operation Pacifier led to the arrest of about 900 alleged users of this site.
The FBI stated that it had knowledge about the existence of the website from its beginning, but the FBI was unable to track down the server locations or the site owner. The FBI blamed this issue on Playpen’s hosting by a “hidden service” via the application Tor. It was only after the Playpen site owner revealed his IP address in communications on line that enabled the FBI to track down the page, its owner, and its users.
Today, multiple federal agencies; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, and others are now pro-actively and aggressively to find, entice, and investigate persons they believe are trying to entice children, and their guardians, into illicit sexual activity. Such online chatting and pornography viewing have all sorts of detrimental effects identified in the social sciences research and discussed by those, such as clergy or counsellors, who care for moral or spiritual welfare of all of us. But one clear danger, the danger of criminal prosecution, jail, and lifetime registration as a sex offender, is the ever-present likelihood that your clients’ porn viewing will bring them in contact with child pornography offered up by federal agents in an effort to have your client agree to commit a crime against a child.
Counsel your clients, as in all criminal investigations, when confronted by law enforcement with accusations, be courteous, be careful, and be silent. Make no statements whatsoever to those agents and hire the best legal counsel you can find to protect you against these drastic legal consequences. The time to have this conversation with your clients is before they ever have to exercise this advice, and hopefully before their online surfing gets them into this situation. Patrick J. McLain