Desperate Measures


Desperate times call for desperate measures. Last fall, New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco was desperate as election day approached and he found himself in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic challenger Eliot Spitzer. The desperate measure he took: seizing the computer servers of two Internet service providers as part of a high-profile, international child-pornography bust called Operation Ripcord.

The action targeted "Pedo University," an online newsgroup of pornographers that trades electronic images of adolescents engaged in sex acts. Last October, law enforcement agents in 12 states and four countries arrested a total of 13 suspects for possession and transmission of child pornography.

Vacco's prey, however, was not suspected child pornographers. It was Syracuse's Dreamscape and Buffalo's BuffNET, two ISPs whose only crime may have been operating in areas where the attorney general needed votes. While it is illegal to distribute or possess child pornography, no state or federal law requires ISPs to moderate newsgroups. Although hundreds of New York-based ISPs carried the newsgroups on which members of Pedo University traded files, Dreamscape and BuffNET were the only two to have their servers seized, raising charges of politically motivated prosecution and investigatory overreach.

Noting that none of the individuals arrested in Operation Ripcord had accounts with Dreamscape or BuffNET and that no charges have been filed against either provider, BuffNET Vice President Mike Hassett asks, "Isn't it intriguing that [Vacco] chose only two ISPs, both in upstate New York? Is it coincidence that Vacco won his last election relying on upstate New York votes? Why weren't the other 1,000-plus ISPs in New York state a target of his investigation?"

Vacco's action also has troubling implications for all ISPs, says BuffNET's attorney, Steven Fox, who has likened seizing equipment that merely provided subscribers with access to Internet newsgroups to "seizing envelopes to combat mail fraud." Vacco's office refused comment on the matter.

While neither ISP faces criminal charges, both have incurred costs for legal fees, equipment replacement, service interruptions, and massive bad publicity. Vacco, too, has problems: He lost a tight race ultimately decided by absentee ballots.