Keystroke of Destiny

When I first met Mark Lambert two years ago, he was a devoted husband and father of four, a regular church-goer, addicted to computers, the Internet and the SF television show Red Dwarf. Just completed a stint in a high-paying computer job. Lived in a typical suburban home, a solid, respectable middle-class citizen.

Nowadays his marriage is on the rocks, he lives in a distant city apart from his wife and family, he has attempted suicide at least once, his career is in ruins, and he is bitter, very bitter.

His story is one that could have been that of any Internet user. Just a keystroke and a photograph taken before he was born destroyed his life.

The story begins in late 1995, when Mark was a programmer working for a multinational computer company. Resident in Canberra, his services were contracted out to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Like many other computer professionals, he worked long hours and often took work home with him in order to squeeze more time in. With four teenage children, every dollar helped!

Again, like many other computer professionals, he sought his entertainment from the Internet, where he many long hours on IRC (Internet Relay Chat - a sort of real-time party conversation with participants scattered across the globe) discussing science fiction, TV shows and a variety of other topics.

It all went off track one evening when he was sent a picture in response to a wide-ranging IRC conversation. The grainy black and white photo was of a young person giving oral sex to a World War Two soldier. A historical curiosity, one would imagine, rather than the sort of child pornography that is a big and sordid business nowadays.

Anyway, Mark had a look at what he'd been sent, and learnt that these sorts of images (and worse, much worse) were freely available on the Net. He was appalled. There seemed to be a ring of people peddling child pornography operating out of a media site in Sydney. Mark Lambert, father of four, decided to gather enough evidence to take to the police, with the intention of putting these people behind bars.

Over a period of time he gained the confidence of the child pornographers and learnt who they were, how to contact them, how they gained their material and where they stored it. In May 1996 he had enough to take to the police.

He checked with a mate first, who told him that he was doing the right thing and that they would approach the police together. Before doing so, he had one more task to complete. In gaining his evidence, Mark had downloaded a number of graphic images of child sex, which he had stored in a locked folder on his hard disk. He thought that these images might be useful to the police, but after talking to his friend, realised that he was in technical breach of the law, and it might be best to get rid of them entirely.

That night Mark, using a file utility, moved the files out of the locked folder and into the trash basket. But somehow he made a mistake. With the very first image, he pressed the wrong function key, and instead of moving the file, he copied it instead.

The next day Mark and his friend went to the police and, in a five hour interview, they explained the nature of the material that Mark had discovered and gave instructions on how to assess it. He was repeatedly assured that he had done the right thing in coming to the police and that he would not be charged for any technical breach of the law.

After five hours in an interview room, the police decided that they had a case and called in an officer from the Sexual Assault Unit, which was the group responsible for prosecuting child pornographers. Mark then spent several more hours explaining the situation to this officer.

This policeman had just suffered an embarrassing loss in a highly-publicised case where a failed candidate for the ACT Legislative Assembly, Tony Savage, had been charged with possessing child pornography obtained from the Internet, but used an adjournment to leave Australia, telling neighbours that he was going bushwalking.

When he did not return home, a team of police scoured the rugged Brindabella mountains near Canberra, and gradually expanded their search to Sydney, Darwin and overseas. To this date he has not been located.

Unwilling to let another possible child pornographer slip through his fingers, the officer decided to play it safe, sought and gained a search warrant, and took Mark off to rummage through his home computer. It was then that the fifty-year-old picture came to light.

From that moment, things went rapidly downhill for Mark. His computer, monitor, modem and a collection of floppy disks was seized, he was arrested and charged with possessing child pornography and he appeared in court. It was only the fact that he owned his house and he had a stable family and employment that prevented him from being held in the infamous Belconnen Remand Centre.

His next appearance in court was the subject of intense media interest, and Mark's spirits sank when he appeared on all three Canberra television news bulletins and on the front page of the Canberra Times as an "alleged child pornographer".

Mark's security clearance was pulled, which meant that he lost his job at DFAT and had to go on the dole. Many of his friends stopped talking to him, and his children found themselves under attack from their schoolmates.

It was a very low time for Mark, who resented the essential injustice of the situation. The fact that his information was enough to charge the members of the Sydney group and close down their site was small comfort. Further research on the subject had revealed that there were dozens of newsgroups and hundreds of IRC channels devoted entirely to child pornography, most of them operating out of Europe, especially Scandinavia. He had tried to mop up a puddle, unaware of the nearby Pornographic Ocean.

With all of the media exposure, Mark found it impossible to gain employment in Canberra, and was forced to take a low-paying job in Sydney, where he lived alone in a caravan park and communicated with his family over the phone.

It took nearly a year before his case was listed for a hearing in the Magistrates Court. He returned to Canberra to prepare a defence, and found that it was all too much for him to handle. As a diabetic, he took an insulin overdose in an attempt to end his life.

His wife discovered him in time, and he spent a week in Intensive Care, before facing committal proceedings for a trial in the Supreme Court. With a trial likely to be at least a year away, Mark was at a low point in his life. He and his wife decided to sell up and make a new start in a new city.

Moving to Melbourne didn't help. Within a few months Mark had broken up with his wife and was living alone again, contemplating the possibility of a prison sentence in the company of child molesters, murderers and other "rock-spiders". He was determined that if he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, he would take his own life, intending to do an adequate job this time.

Mark returned to Canberra for his trial recently. Over the years and months I had grown to know him and to share his sense of frustration and understand his bitterness. I bought him a cup of coffee during a lull in proceedings and caught up with him. His quick and genial sense of humour was now completely gone, replaced by a sardonic cynicism. His appearance had changed -- he had shaved off the beard that made him look like a big cuddly teddy bear (his wife's words) and he had lost weight.

Most sadly, where his wife had accompanied him on his previous court appearances, this time he was alone. The happy husband and father I had first met was completely gone, replaced with a bitter, fearful and deeply disturbed man.

We walked back to the court, straight past the waiting television cameras, whose operators couldn't recognise him.

Inside, his lawyer had advice for him. He could fight the charges if he wanted, but it would take a few days in court and cost a lot of money. He would probably be better off pleading guilty to a technical breach and use the fact that he had approached the police on his own as a mitigating circumstance.

After two years of despair, it had come down to this. The prosecution argued for a need to impose a deterrent sentence to counter the enormous public disquiet over child pornography. But, as the judge pointed out, and the prosecution could not deny, the offence would not have come to light if Mark had not approached the police in the first place with the best of intentions.

The custodial sentence that Mark had dreaded did not eventuate. He got the proverbial "slap on the wrist" with a three-year good behaviour bond.

But I could not help feeling that the punishment already endured had been far worse. He had lost his job, his family, his friends, his possessions, and his future. In two years his life had fallen apart.

Too harsh a punishment for doing the right thing.

We none of us can kid ourselves that it couldn't happen to us. An innocuously-named attachment to an e-mail, and we are in technical breach of the law. At this very moment I have sitting in my download folder a file sent to me by a friend. Entitled "Death by Viagra", I have not yet found a program to view the image, but I suspect that if and when I do, it will not turn out to be terribly savoury.

How do we explain the intricacies of the Internet to a seventy-year old judge? I've watched judges and juries look through technical documents. A long day in court, an afternoon punctuated only by the drone of barristers, and the crucial evidence is handed to the jury foreman. A long printout on fan-fold paper containing lists of codes, logons and abbreviations. The foreman glances at it, flips through the pages and hands it on to the next jury member.

The law itself has not caught up to the Internet, and I suspect that so long as it takes several years to draft, introduce, debate and pass legislation, it will never catch up, but will instead fall ever further behind.

I think that we will see any number of Marks in future. Set up by an enemy, inadvertently caught up in some pornography spam, perhaps simply downloading a file with an innocent name, with the wrong circumstances we could all become similar victims. Once the TV cameras roll onto us as a breathless reporter talks about an alleged kiddie porn criminal, we might as well bid farewell to the life we once knew.

Peter Mackay

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