As part of a recent child pornography investigation disconcertingly known as Operation Pacifier, the FBI ran a website that distributed photographs and videos of children being sexually abused.
Last year, according to The Seattle Times, “after arresting the North Carolina administrator of The Playpen, a ‘dark web’ child-pornography internet bulletin board, agents seized the site’s server and moved it to an FBI warehouse in Virginia.” The bureau used the website to run “a sting and computer-hacking operation of unparalleled scope that has thus far led to criminal charges against 186 people,” mostly for receiving or possessing child pornography.
In other words, the government became a major distributor of illegal images in an attempt to catch people who look at them, thereby committing a more serious crime than those arrested.
As attorneys representing the people busted by the FBI have pointed out, the government’s position is that children are revictimized every time images of their sexual abuse are viewed or shared. That argument is one of the main rationales for punishing mere possession of child pornography, which under federal law and the laws of some states can be treated more harshly than violent crimes—more harshly even than actual abuse of children.
“Distributing” such an image is a federal crime punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of 20 years. If such actions merit criminal prosecution because they are inherently harmful, there is no logical reason why the federal agents who ran The Playpen should escape the penalties they want to impose on the people who visited the site.