The Feds In Cyberspace

For two years, the investigators in Operation Innocent Images quietly went about their work. Last week they sprang the trap. Federal agents arrested a dozen people across the country, alleging they used America Online to exchange digitized photographs of young children posing naked or engaged in sex. In the nasty underworld of electronic child pornography, it was the biggest sting ever and more is to come. Further arrests are likely, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For those who hope to use new computer technology to exploit children, says a Justice Department spokesman, the message is clear: "You're in trouble."

The crackdown introduces a new era in cyberspace. The recent FBI investigation focused only on America Online, the biggest service, with 3.5 million subscribers. But others, such as CompuServe and Prodigy, are collaborating with law-enforcement authorities in similar cases. Both companies last week said they would cooperate with the FBI as well, if that were required to make the new electronic media safer for children. "The FBI and America Online should be applauded," said CompuServe spokesman Pierce Reid. "This incident shows that real world laws apply in cyberspace."

Does this mean Big Brother is about to start snooping on our e-mail? Hardly. Neither the FBI nor the various online services expresses any interest in probing the burgeoning on-line trade in adult pornography. "We're talking only about protecting children," says FBI Special Agent Timothy McNally. Those efforts, he adds, will be "ongoing." America Online chief executive Steve Case also took pains last week to assure subscribers that their privacy would be protected. "We do not and will not monitor any private communications," he said in a letter distributed over the service. The FBI would be alerted to possible illegal activities only when they were brought to the company's attention by subscribers. Users, Case said, should consider themselves members of a "neighborhood-watch group," responsible for safeguarding their "electronic community."

Conservative groups seized on the arrests as evidence the Internet was becoming a sort of electronic red-light district that should be more rigorously policed. One such advocate, Sen. James Exon, called for sweeping new legislation to "punish those who transmit indecent material over computer networks." Civil libertarians, on the other hand, saw the bust as an affirmation. "Current law is adequate" to deal with cyberporn, says Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "We don't need legislation that violates the First Amendment rights of Americans." Perhaps that's the most sobering message of all. In the end, the cyberworld is very much like the real world. There's a place for the FBI.