Federal officials announced on Wednesday that they shut down an international, members-only online child-pornography bulletin board that specialized in the sexual abuse of children 12 and under.
The Web-based enterprise, known as Dreamboard, was considered particularly pernicious by law-enforcement officials because it was designed to reward a participant with greater access to child pornography whenever that participant provided new images of sexual abuse of young children.
In effect, Dreamboard promoted pedophilia by creating a reason to search out new children to victimize.
To date, 72 individuals have been charged in three indictments and a complaint that were unsealed on Wednesday. All but 20 have been arrested, officials said.
More than 500 other members of Dreamboard are under investigation.
“The members of this criminal network shared a demented dream to create the preeminent online community for the promotion of child sexual exploitation,” Attorney General Eric Holder told a Washington news conference. “For the children they victimized, this was nothing short of a nightmare.”
In addition to the United States, Dreamboard members have been arrested in Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Hungary, Kenya, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Qatar, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Dreamboard’s online rules of conduct were printed in English, Russian, Japanese, and Spanish.
“The rules of Dreamboard were clear,” Mr. Holder said. “They encouraged and incentivized the creation of child pornography.”
“According to our indictments, in order to become part of the Dreamboard community, prospective members were required to upload pornography portraying children 12 years old or younger,” Holder said. “Once given access, participants had to continually upload images of child sexual abuse in order to maintain membership.”
The effort to shut down the child-pornography ring began in December 2009. Dreamboard members used layers of protective technology to try to insulate themselves from law-enforcement scrutiny.
Members used screen names on the board, and posts were encrypted with a password shared only with other members, officials said. Access to the board was directed through proxy servers and routed through other computers to prevent investigators from tracing Internet activity. The members were also encouraged to encrypt files on their own computers.
Dreamboard set up a ranking system to reward members who frequently posted new images. To become a trusted member, an individual was required to post a new image at least once every 50 days. Those who failed to do so were no longer granted access to the board.
Those who were more prolific at posting new material were recognized as VIP members. The highest level, a Super VIP, was someone who had personally molested a child and posted images or video of the crime on the board, officials said.
Thirteen of the 52 individuals arrested have pleaded guilty, and four have received sentences of 20 to 30 years in prison. The charges include conspiring to advertise and distribute child pornography and engaging in a child-pornography enterprise.
“The dismantling of Dreamboard is another stark warning to would-be child predators who think they can trade in child pornography and commit heinous acts against innocent children while hiding behind pseudonyms and other technological tricks,” said John Morton, director of US Immigration and Customs Inforcement (ICE), in a statement.
Holder said the Dreamboard case should send a strong message to pedophiles and child pornographers around the world: “We will find you. We will stop you. And we will bring you to justice.”
The four individuals sentenced to prison terms are: Michael Childs of Huntsville, Ala., 30 years in prison; Timothy Gentry of Burlington, Ky., 25 years in prison; Charles Christian of Tilton, Ill., 22 years in prison; and Michael Biggs of Orlando, Fla., 20 years in prison.