Cover photo credit to USA Today. 3 minute read.
It can’t be ignored that everyone is all about Area 51 right now. But if you heard about a solar observatory being evacuated and closing for a mysterious federal investigation, what would your first thought be? If it’s “aliens,” you wouldn’t be alone. But it wasn’t extraterrestrial activity—it was something much more concerning.
The sudden and previously unexplained evacuation of a New Mexico solar observatory late last year was prompted by a child pornography investigation, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation documents.
The FBI opened a child exploitation images—also known as “child pornography”—investigation involving a janitor’s computer found at the observatory, and agents tracked wireless signals used to access child porn, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit.
The Associated Press reported that a search warrant filed mid-September in federal court in Las Cruces said the facility’s chief observer, who was not identified, told FBI agents in August he found a laptop computer with child pornography several months earlier but did not immediately report the discovery to authorities because he was “distracted” by an unspecified urgent issue at the observatory.
The search warrant provided to a judge the justifications for agents to search computers, cellphones or tablets owned by the janitor, Joshua Lee Cope, and the house trailer where he lives.
An FBI agent seized the laptop at the observatory on Aug. 21, 2018, and took it to the FBI office in Las Cruces, court documents said.
FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said Thursday that no one has been charged and the investigation is ongoing. The observatory has now re-opened.
But what does this matter to regular porn consumers?
So one solar observatory closed temporarily because of child exploitation images. What does any of that have to do with the millions (if not billions) of people who consume porn on a regular basis?
More than you may expect.
In August of 2018, a federal judge made it a lot easier for the porn industry to exploit minors and get away with it.
Here’s what happened, in the words of Dr. Gail Dines and David L Levy:
The case revolves around U.S. Code Title 18 Section 2257, which requires porn producers to keep stringent records on the ages of performers and allows federal agents to inspect them at any time.
The penalties for failing to do so are harsh, including large fines and up to five years imprisonment for a first offense. In the most famous case, the company that produced the “Girls Gone Wild” video series was fined $2.1 million for 2257 violations. Although there have been few prosecutions, the potential penalties provide an important deterrent.
Over time, the Justice Department expanded the definition of producers subject to the regulations to include “secondary producers,” which includes internet distribution, and set out detailed guidelines for how the records should be organized and indexed.
Judge Michael Baylson of the U.S. 3rd Circuit of Appeals ruled that most of 2257’s record-keeping requirements were unconstitutional on First and Fourth Amendment grounds. The ruling allows primary producers to fulfill age verification obligations by using a form developed by the Free Speech Coalition, the industry association that brought the lawsuit against 2257. In the most far-reaching and troublesome change, the decision completely exempts major distributors (termed secondary producers), from any record-keeping requirements.
While the production and distribution of child pornography remain illegal, the law is toothless without record keeping. The requirement provides the only way to verify and track performers’ ages and serves as a major incentive for businesses across the complex supply chain to monitor content.
The collision between child porn and mainstream sites
So what’s the connection between what happened in New Mexico, and the removal of Section 2257? It’s that many people, in the future, may be like the alleged child porn consuming janitor and not even realize it. There are fewer restrictions in place to ensure the exploitation of minors doesn’t happen via the porn industry, so what’s stopping the mass distribution of exploitative content through mainstream mediums?
Consider how “teen porn” and related genres featuring young-looking females have already grown to be the largest single segment, representing about one-third of all internet porn in terms of both search-term frequency and proportion of websites. It’s clear that capitalizing on content featuring young-looking performers is a big market, and the removal of Section 2257 only paves the way for that to continue.
Bottom line: child exploitation content and mainstream porn are more closely related than you might think. The janitor’s computer is only the tip of the exploitation iceberg.