Marking the most aggressive and widespread government crackdown over online obscenity, federal investigators on Monday charged more than 89 people--including Little League coaches, eight clergy members, a school bus driver and at least one police officer--with belonging to a 20-state child pornography ring that met and swapped explicit images through Yahoo Inc.
The FBI said it had arrested 19 people in recent days, bringing the total to 40 in the last 14 months as part of its "Operation Candyman." At least 50 more arrests are expected this week.
The arrests come amid a stepped-up attack on child exploitation by the Department of Justice and state officials eager to crack down on Internet pornography.
Beginning next month, a Pennsylvania law will hold Internet service providers criminally liable if the companies do not block any site that the state attorney general's office deems to offer child pornography.
'A New Marketplace . . . Has Emerged'
Authorities say their goal is to close off a growing maze of Internet back alleys they say have made children more susceptible than ever to sexual exploitation.
"It is clear that a new marketplace for child pornography has emerged in the dark corners of cyberspace," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said at a news conference at FBI headquarters. "Hidden in the vastness of the Internet, innocent boys and girls have been targeted by offenders who view them as sexual objects. These offenders have tried to use technology and anonymity of the Internet to trade child pornography, and these individuals must be stopped."
Civil libertarians and the high-tech industry worry that such a crackdown could be taken too far, and note that even the federal definition of "child pornography" is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Federal law makes it a crime to sell or possess "any visual depiction" that seems to show a sex act--simulated or real--involving an actor who appears to be a minor. Congress later expanded the definition to include even "computer-generated images," such as cartoons and video games, that portray minors in apparent sexual positions.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor expressed skepticism during a hearing last year. She questioned whether the Oscar-winning film "Traffic" could fall under the law's broad definition of illegal pornography. One scene portrays the underage daughter of an official in the war on drugs apparently having sex with a drug dealer.
"The language is extremely open to interpretation," said attorney H. Louis Sirkin, who represents the Free Speech Coalition, a collection of adult-film makers that is challenging the federal statute in the Supreme Court. "Is it child pornography when there's no real child involved?"
The computer files targeted in "Operation Candyman" involved images that are "very explicit . . . hard-core sexual exploitation of our children," said Michael Heimbach of the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit. FBI officials declined to say if the material swapped and sought in three Yahoo discussion groups contained photos, videos, animation or any files with audio.
Like music fans with Napster, tens of millions of Internet users have transformed the club and community sections of Yahoo's "EGroup" networks into havens for swapping hard-core images.
"We applaud the efforts of the Department of Justice and the FBI in apprehending individuals who engage in the creation and online distribution of illegal content," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.
Group Claimed About 4,600 U.S. Members
Yahoo officials have acknowledged that their members have created virtual red-light districts, just as others have built virtual communities focused on snowboarding and needlepoint.
One of the Yahoo groups depicted itself this way: "This group is for People who love kids. You can post any type of messages you like too or any type of pics and vids you like too." One of the groups was dubbed "Candyman," and the other two have not been identified because investigators still are tracing suspects through their e-mail addresses.
The "Candyman" group claimed more than 7,000 members, including about 4,600 in the United States, the FBI said. It's not clear if each of those members is a unique individual, or if there are cases of one person having multiple accounts.
The FBI did not disclose a full list of the people charged in this case or if any of the suspects come from Southern California, which is considered the capital of the commercial adult-film industry.
Identifying, charging and arresting the thousands of people affected by Monday's action could take several months. The FBI hasn't decided whether to pursue the roughly 2,400 group members in other countries, the official said.
Those charged so far include a foster parent, two Catholic priests, and medical, educational, military and law enforcement professionals, according to the FBI.
One of the suspects is Father Thomas A. Rydzewski, an associate pastor at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Arrested on Dec. 13, he was charged with possession of child pornography. Rydzewski told the FBI that he "has long had a curiosity" about child pornography and that he sometimes connected to Internet newsgroups that promote it.
In Las Vegas, the FBI arrested Beckham Baker, a 23-year-old teacher's aide at a day-care facility, Special Agent Gayle Jacobs said. Baker was arrested Feb. 7 on one count of possessing child pornography and one count of receiving it. He was arrested six weeks ago because he works with children and is considered more of a threat, though he is free on bail, Jacobs said.
The FBI said Monday that 27 of the people arrested in conjunction with "Operation Candyman" have admitted to molesting more than 36 children.
Since 1995, a Boston-based FBI task force dubbed "Innocent Images" has been focused on proliferation of child pornography and other harmful and exploitative material on the Internet. FBI investigators in Houston joined the task force and initiated the investigation into the Candyman Internet group early last year. The investigation quickly expanded to include two other Yahoo EGroups. It's not clear whether all 89 people charged Monday were members of the Candyman group.
States Follow Federal Government's Lead
Monday's news follows last year's "Operation Avalanche," in which about 100 people were arrested by the FBI in a two-year undercover sting. U.S. officials later forwarded the names of 9,000 Web subscribers to local authorities because of the users' "predilection" for child pornography.
"We will diligently shut down any and all Web sites, EGroups, bulletin boards and any other mediums that will foster the continued exploitation of our children," said FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Some states are following the federal cue. Pennsylvania's law requires hundreds of Internet service providers such as America Online and EarthLink to remove or disable access to child pornography within five days of being notified by the state attorney general.
Surprisingly, the ACLU's Pennsylvania chapter praised the bill, noting that an Internet user whose access is cut off could seek redress in court.
But technology executives countered that tracking such sites can be a herculean task on the anonymous, global network.
"This is technically impossible for us to do," said Sue Ashdown, director of the American Internet Service Provider Assn., an organization of small ISPs.
Officials with AOL said they have scheduled meetings with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office to discuss the law, said company spokesman Nicholas Graham.
Times staff writer Aaron Zitner in Washington and Associated Press contributed to this report.