March 5, 1997 5:30 PM PST

Texas porn charges refuted

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Alleged porn site raided in Texas

February 18, 1997
The creators of Netpics are firing back at police in Fort Worth, Texas, over charges that the Internet service possessed child pornography and was promoting obscene material.

In an interview with a newsletter called the Texas Telecommunications Journal, executives of Netpics said they were completely unaware that child pornography was on their service, which culled about 200 "adult-oriented" Usenet newsgroups for subscribers who paid $11.95 a month for the access.

The interview marked Netpics' first public comments since the case surfaced last month. Civil liberties groups are closely monitoring the case, which could set a legal precedent for the liability involving the transmission of pornography.

The interviewer, Gene Crick, is president of the Texas Internet Service Providers Association and a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Austin chapter.

In the interview, Netpics--owned by a company called WebbWorld--contends that it spent three to four hours a day screening incoming images to remove any child pornography. The operators said they had no way of seeing each of the 14,000 images collected per day from Usenet groups.

However, it did not respond to charges that it had promoted obscene material, a misdemeanor punishable by two years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Possessing child pornography in Texas is a felony punishable by ten years in prison and $10,000 fine.

To be charged for both crimes under the state's law, a person must "intentionally or knowingly" commit the act.

Netpics' executives called the media coverage of the incident "pretty ruthless" but added: "To be fair, I guess that's partly understandable. Until now, they've heard only one side of the story, a very distorted one."

On its Web site, Netpics' owners also posted a message arguing its case. "Because of the nature of the Internet, WebbWorld is unable to control what material users throughout the world post to the newsgroups," they said. "WebbWorld abhors the use the exploitation of children in a sexually suggestive manner."

The company is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of whoever originally posted the pictures to Usenet groups. The site also said: "WebbWorld is assembling a legal defense team to vigorously defend the charges brought against its executives."

Texas is known for its intolerance of pornography, and the passage of a state Senate bill yesterday is certain to intensify its ardor. Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown (R-Lake Jackson) introduced a bill on February 20, the week after the company was raided, to expand the state's current child pornography laws specifically to include "visual depictions" found on discs, computers, and the Internet.

Whether Netpics will be held responsible for unknowingly having child porn or "obscene" material on its site is the question troubling the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As of yet, the group's Austin branch has not offered to defend Netpics in court, and its attorney Lawrence Brown would not comment on the case today.

The foundation is concerned about the chilling effect of prosecution could have in all services that allow access to newsgroups. "Legally speaking, we are on very tricky ground here because there are common elements of content that could be applied to everywhere that a Usenet archive resides," Crick said today.

"Also, the fact that the police took all of their computers when they were only looking for select images presents a constitutional issue," he added. "We have to be careful before we start sending posses out into cyberspace."

David Smith, president of the group's Austin chapter, agreed: "The real issue is over the seizure of computers that should be protected by the First Amendment. To seize all that equipment was illegal prior restraint. If it had been an adult bookstore, for example, the police could have only seized the items in question, not everything in the store."

But Fort Worth police said they have a clean case, despite Netpics' insistence that it tried to filter illegal material, and they are considering making more arrests.

"Even if they say the site is for adults only and there is no child porn, obscene material is still not allowed on the Net in Texas," Fort Worth vice squad Lt. Richard Reflogal said today. "Netpics' ISP will not be pursued at this point unless we get information that it knew what was going on. However, we're not completely sure whether we're going to investigate subscribers who downloaded child pornography."

 

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