In late 1996, an AOL user e-mailed hundreds of people, announcing "I have pictures, VHS tapes, posters, audio recordings, and games based on child pornography."

The notorious mail included a price-list and an address in Jackson Heights, New York. Several hundred students at the University of Oslo reportedly received copies, as did students at Yale. The message was e-mailed to Oregon, Georgia, Illinois, and New York, as well as England, Australia, Holland, Finland, Germany, and Canada (according to Usenet posts). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police received several calls, as did Interpol. One ISP reported 10 of their 1,000 users received copies--close to 1%.

Even some net personalities received copies. Ron Newman, formerly of the MIT Media Lab, received the e-mail at five different accounts. Joe Shea, editor of the American Reporter, received a copy; Philip Elmer-DeWitt, author of Time magazine's "Cyberporn" cover story, received two. The authors of "The Stalker's Home Page," and "Why AOL Sucks" also received the e-mail.

Responding to complaints, AOL stated "we have closed the accounts involved, and our legal department is taking action." Postmaster David O'Donnell posted to Usenet, "Please do not send in more reports of this abuse". Over 50 people complained to the New York police department, who investigated the location--a P.O. Box--with the FBI. (On a mailing list Brock Meeks noted that AOL has a "working relationship" with the FBI.)

A reporter for the New York-based Newsday covered the story. According to one Usenet post, the address belongs to one of AOL's "disk dancers". The mailing address of the (presumably-framed) New Yorker is for sales of a program that lets AOL users spend time on the system without being charged.

This is not the first time AOL's hacker community has cross swords with child pornography. The documentation for AOHell contains a section called "Why I made AOHell." "I'm sick of all the God damn pedophiles," the program's author states. "AOL constantly closed the 'Hackers' Member room, but refuses to do anything about all the pedophilia rooms...If AOL is going to do nothing about this type of sick behavior then I will do everything I can to screw AOL up."

Instead, users signing onto AOL tonight received an advertisement for hardware that can "grab color images right from your camcorder, VCR, or TV." This December marks the five-year anniversary of the first child pornography scandal on AOL. In 1991 Newsweek reported that one subscriber posing as a child "received pictures of what appear to be youngsters involved in sexual acts." AOL's members didn't find out about the incident until the story turned up on CNN. (Mainly because the outraged user went straight to the network.)

In 1993, ten-year-old George Burdynski disappeared from Brentwood, Virginia. He was never seen again--but his disappearance launched the largest child pornography investigation in FBI history. In September of 1995, the FBI raided the homes of 120 AOL users, and in July the FBI raided 100 homes just in Cincinnati. Days before, one agent told the Cincinnati Enquirer "there are new people being identified daily." The FBI had information on more than 3,000 users--which at the time constituted one out of every 1,200 AOL subscribers; "FBI and America Online records revealed that during one 25-minute span when an illegal photograph was made available on the computer service, about 400 people nationwide downloaded the picture to their computers." Jean Villanueva stated that AOL contacted the FBI "upon receiving the material, and verifying that it was in all likelihood illegal". (At least one children's rights activist questioned the legality of the delays "verification" added to AOL's response.)

Earlier that year U.S. Customs Officials cracked a child pornography ring operating on America Online. In February of 1995 two teachers in Florida were charged, and a third suspect arrested in Salt Lake City. A Customs official said photographs were being downloaded directly from AOL's shareware section, which apparently wasn't monitored round-the-clock. The first guilty verdict from that investigation was handed down in February of 1996--for photographs a user transmitted in July of 1994. In August an AOL user in San Francisco was indicted for his involvement in a 13-year-old Kentucky girl's 2-week disappearance; in November of 1995, a New Jersey man was sentenced for actions with a young boy in July of 1994.

The San Francisco Chronicle suggested problems were exacerbated by AOL's fully-anonymous screen names. In fact, up until September of 1995, AOL wasn't even verifying the full authenticity of the credit card information users input. That created an entrenched subculture of disk dancers that persists to this day. The Washington Post reported that between March and June, over 370,000 fake accounts were created with bogus credit card information.

Ironically, the ten-year-old boy who disappeared lived just miles from AOL's headquarters in Vienna, Virginia. One children's rights advocate is considering setting up a fund in the boy's name.


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