Then, if some of that material turns out to be contraband, you might not only be guilty of possessing it, but also of distributing it. That's because peer-to-peer sites allow others in the network to see what you've downloaded by putting it into a "shared" file on your computer.
According to Beaulier, this is exactly what happened to another of his clients. A man in his 40s, married for many years, was using LimeWire to download legal pornographic images. "He did not understand the default mechanism on the program that allows any file downloaded to be shared with others on the Internet," explains Beaulier.
"As a result, law enforcement located his computer on the peer-to-peer network, found some illegal images that may or may not have been viewed by the user, and seized his computers under a search warrant." Since he may have shared his files with others, the case is being investigated by federal authorities. Beaulier says his client "lives in restless fear, waiting for charges to be filed."
Attorney Reed Lee, of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, has also seen cases of people accused of possessing child pornography who got it unintentionally while browsing legal porn sites. But he believes the stigma against even legal pornography carries over into child pornography prosecutions.
In a case against one of Lee's clients involved with the porn industry, government lawyers "admitted the (contraband material found on his computer) was quickly erased, that it existed only on a cache file and had never been accessed." Still, the government proceeded.
The FBI dismisses the notion of "accidental acquisition" of pirated materials or child pornography. Spokesman Paul Bresson says, "It's hard to stumble across child porn. Most of it is exchanged through password-protected Web sites." That's just one of the "steps taken by pedophiles to ensure they are not openly sharing these pictures."
Not surprisingly, people in the legitimate adult entertainment industry — who reject any association with child pornography — find "I didn't know it was there" to be a convenient excuse, often used against their business.
Kathee Brewer, of Adult Video News Online Magazine says, "People will do that and then say, 'Oh, those nasty porn purveyors, they did this to me. They sent this to me and I didn't want it and they put it on my computer somehow without my knowledge.' It's very easy to blame somebody else, especially in a realm that's as little understood by the majority of Web surfers as technology."
But computer security experts say there are ways to discern whether illegal material on a user's computer is there accidentally or not. "When it's somebody that is doing it intentionally," explains John Pironti of Getronics, a computer services company, "the way we prove it is ... it's very organized, with different directory structures, different naming conventions and different viewing times where you can show the file was viewed so many times in such a time period."