“Childs Play” was a sprawling, underground child exploitation website — the largest on the internet. It was a platform that connected thousands of abusers and pedophiles around the world.
And until September, the website was run for months by Australian police in an undercover operation to catch predators worldwide. Police secretly took control of the gigantic forum in October 2016, according to Norwegian newspaper VG. They ran it for 11 months, shutting it down one month ago.
They gained control of the forum after the site’s founder was arrested in northern Virginia and an international law enforcement team saw a unique opportunity: If they took over the site, they could monitor members, track down perpetrators and rescue victims.
Police told the Sydney Morning Herald that they believe the sting has led them to identify 90 perpetrators around the world.
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“Once you’ve got control of the site, you can do whatever you want,” Queensland police officer Paul Griffiths, who helped lead the investigation, told VG.
And what police did was try to make sure it looked like business as usual on Childs Play, so they wouldn’t raise suspicion.
But first, the group of American, Canadian, European and Australian law enforcement officials transferred the website to an Australian server. Australian law allows authorities to commit some criminal acts — such as sharing child porn — without being prosecuted, according to the Guardian.
“This is a war, and we have to engage in the war,” Hetty Johnston, director of child advocacy group Bravehearts, told the Guardian in defending the police’s tactic of sharing images of child abuse in an effort to stop child abuse. “I support this 100 percent because the images that police would use would not be images that they create, they would be existing images.”
The website had between 3,000 and 4,000 active users, the Guardian reports, and had more than a million users registered since it was created. Of those, around 100 users posted videos and photos they had recorded of child rape.
The takeover of the site began last year, and lasted about 11 months, after a child abuse arrest in Virginia led authorities to the site’s founder, Benjamin Faulkner.
Faulkner and Patrick Falte, 27, had “groomed” their child victim with toys, pizza and ice cream — then taped the abuse so they could upload it to their website, the largest on the web, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They were arrested in October 2016.
The child was younger than 12, according to the Associated Press. Faulkner is Canadian, while Falte and another man charged with sexual exploitation of a child in connection with the incident, are both American.
But not everyone agrees with the unusual tactics law enforcement employed to keep the site running — including sharing and allowing others to continue to share images of exploited children.
“My daughter should not be used as a bait,” one mother told VG.
Police have defended their actions by saying that they would never create the sites on their own.
“When we find them, we infiltrate them and get as high as possible in the network's administrative hierarchy, to destroy it,” said Queensland police officer Jon Rouse, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Faulkner and Falte both pleaded guilty in a Virginia court and were sentenced in September to life in prison by a district court judge, the Times-Dispatch reports. Prosecutors had requested 50 years for each. Court documents showed that both men had attempted suicide in the time since they were arrested.