This seems to be a dramatically different method for conducting a child pornography sting.

Via the San Francisco Chronicle:

The FBI seized and ran a child pornography service late last year as investigators worked to identify its customers, one Western Washington man allegedly among them.

Following a lengthy investigation, Nebraska-based agents raided the large child pornography service in November hoping to catch users who shared thousands of images showing children being raped, displayed and abused.

The Bureau ran the service for two weeks while attempting to identify more than 5,000 customers, according to a Seattle FBI agent’s statements to the court. Court records indicate the site continued to distribute child pornography online while under FBI control; the Seattle-based special agent, a specialist in online crimes against children, detailed the investigation earlier this month in a statement to the court.

The investigation appears to mark a departure for the Bureau and other federal law enforcement agencies aiming to root out child porn purveyors.

Historically, child pornography investigations stem from tips made to law enforcement, interactions with undercover officers posing as customers or reviews of documentation seized during searches of child porn clearinghouses like the one recently raided in Nebraska. While investigators are known to have posed as child porn dealers – a 2011 effort involved targeted emails to suspected pedophiles – it is not apparent that the FBI previously dealt child porn as part of a sting.

The investigation is in its very early stages, but thus far only one computer has been seized, from a pool of some 5,600 users on the site.

Actively distributing child pornography to incriminate pedophiles is an incredibly slippery ethical slope.  As the Chronicle report points out, legal experts explain that every time an image of a child being abused is distributed, the child is victimized again.  With thousands of images being shared during the two-week timeframe that the FBI operated this website, thousands of innocent children were victimized again.

Not to mention the agents who were placed into a scenario that provides high levels of emotional trauma.

In 2009, the Washington Post ran an article on the toll these cases take on investigators:

Experts say the job is one of the most arduous in law enforcement, and it has changed the agents and officers in profound and subtle ways. When they see children on the street, they wonder whether they are recognizing someone from a video or photo. They regularly run long distances to sweat away the images. They fret about Web cameras in the homes of relatives, thinking that nothing good comes from them. On commutes home, they cleanse their minds before embracing their children.

Not everyone can handle the assignment. Local police and the FBI sometimes have difficulty filling slots on a task force of about 20 agents and officers that investigates child pornography for the bureau’s Washington Field Office. Before joining, agents and officers are carefully screened. They must pass a battery of psychological assessments, which continue once they are on the job.

Some investigators burn out. One agent cried during a presentation, and another left after investigating just one case. A prosecutor recalled how a stoic FBI agent broke down in tears after reviewing hundreds of brutal videos and images of children being raped. Prosecutors openly worry that their best investigators are running out of steam.

While officials certainly have used drug sales and such to nab users in the past, actively running a child pornography website over steps boundaries in so many ways – for the victims and the investigators.