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Online Child Pornography Defendant Expected to Cooperate

The increasing popularity of social networking has only magnified the ways in which child pornography can be disseminated.

Monday may bring a small victory for the government in its effort to curtail child pornography online. Aaron Campbell Brown of Boston, Mass., the alleged owner and operator of a Web hosting and payment processing company that facilitated trafficking in child pornography, is scheduled for a change of plea hearing, a spokesperson for the U.S Attorney's Office in Roanoke, Virginia, confirmed on Friday. Brown initially pleaded not guilty.

Brown is not expected to be sentenced immediately, in part so he can cooperate with the government, possibly in exchange for a reduced sentence, said a source familiar with the case.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Roanoke declined to clarify any details about the plea agreement before it is officially disclosed next week.

Brown's decision to change his plea may have something to do with the substantial sentence received by the defendant in a related prosecution.

Last July, Gregory John Mitchell of Dublin, Virginia was sentenced to 150 years in prison for the production, sale, distribution, and possession of child pornography. Mitchell allegedly used Brown's payment processing services.

In April, Brown lost a motion to exclude the testimony of two computer forensic experts.

Child pornography remains a serious problem online, despite aggressive law enforcement efforts. The increasing popularity of social networking has only magnified the ways in which child pornography can be disseminated.

"Real child porn is present on lots of social networks," said Parry Aftab, an attorney, author, and executive director of WiredSafety.org. "You can get images of children to download to your iPod. You can order a live online molestation of a real child for viewing."

And because there's so much child pornography online, law enforcement officials have to prioritize. "No one in law enforcement is really dealing with images," said Aftab, "because there are live kids being held captive."

That leaves social networks and virtual worlds like Second Life under policed. And while social networks and virtual worlds tend to be responsive to copyright infringement claims, they're not known for dealing well with other issues. "Rarely can I get blogs taken down for cyber-stalking or harassment," said Aftab. "Getting anyone at Blogger to do anything is next to impossible."

But social sites are coming to terms with their responsibilities. Aftab said that she had recently chanced across obvious child pornography on a major social network. Because she's currently working with authorities on the issue, she declined to discuss further details.

On Wednesday, Second Life officials acknowledged banning a 54-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman from the virtual world after being presented with images showing the pair's avatars, one adult male and the other a child, engaged in sexual activity.

In a blog post, VP of community and support Robin Harper, writing under the Second Life surname "Linden," said Linden Lab had been informed of the incident by a reporter from German television station ARD and that it had been told that images had been passed on to a state attorney in Halle, Germany. The company said it has tried unsuccessfully to contact German authorities.

Under German law, possession of virtual child pornography can result in a sentence of up to three years. Under U.S. law, images qualify as child pornography if they depict or appear to depict a real child engaged in explicit activity. Illustrations or non-realistic renderings, however, such as those in Second Life, qualify for First Amendment protection, unless they are obscene.

"Linden Lab has absolutely zero tolerance for depictions of child pornography within Second Life," the company said. "We were outraged to see the images that ARD showed us, and will cooperate fully with any legal authorities that choose to investigate the individuals involved in such activities. Child pornography is, of course, illegal and as such is a breach of our Terms of Service."

The German television reporter Nick Shader was reportedly asked to pay to attend meetings where both virtual and real child pornography were available.

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