Wednesday, June 11, 2008


DECLAN MCCULLAGH, CNET New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint would "shut down major sources of online child pornography." What Cuomo didn't say is that his agreement with broadband providers means that they will broadly curb customers' access to Usenet--the venerable pre-Web home of some 100,000 discussion groups, only a handful of which contain illegal material.

Time Warner Cable said it will cease to offer customers access to any Usenet newsgroups, a decision that will affect customers nationwide. Sprint said it would no longer offer any of the tens of thousands of alt.* Usenet newsgroups. Verizon's plan is to eliminate some "fairly broad newsgroup areas."

It's not quite the death of Usenet (which has been predicted, incorrectly, countless times). But if a politician can pressure three of the largest Internet providers into censorial acquiescence, it may only be a matter of time before smaller ones like Supernews, Giganews, and feel the squeeze.

Cuomo's office said it had "reviewed millions of pictures over several months" and found only "88 different newsgroups" containing child pornography.

"We are attacking this problem by working with Internet service providers to ensure they do not play host to this immoral business," Cuomo said in a statement released after a press conference in New York. "I call on all Internet service providers to follow their example and help deter the spread of online child porn."

That amounts to an odd claim: stopping the spread of child porn on a total of 88 newsgroups necessarily means coercing broadband providers to pull the plug on thousands of innocuous ones. Usenet's sprawling set of hierarchically arranged discussion areas include ones that go by names like sci.math,, and comp.os.linux.admin. It has been partially succeeded by mailing lists, message boards, and blogs; AOL stopped carrying Usenet in 2005, but AT&T still does.

Many of Usenet's discussion groups are scarcely different from discussions you might find on the Web at, say, Yahoo Groups. Because there's no central authority, however--Usenet servers exchange messages in a cooperative, peer-to-peer manner--politicians are more likely to look askance at the concept. (For that matter, so is the Recording Industry Association of America.)

It's true that of the three broadband providers Cuomo singled out, only Time Warner Cable will cease to offer Usenet. Sprint is cutting off the alt.* hierarchy, Usenet's largest, which will primarily affect its business customers. A Verizon spokesman said he didn't know details, saying "newsgroups that deal with scientific endeavors" will stick around but admitted that all of the alt.* hierarchy could be toast.

Yet Usenet's sprawling alt.* hierarchy contains tens of thousands of discussion groups--one count says there are 18,408 of them--including alt.adoption, alt.atheism, alt.gothic, and Ditching all of those means eliminating perfectly legitimate conversations. . .

"We're going to stop offering our subscribers newsgroups," said Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "Some of the early press on this indicated we were going to block certain Web sites. We're not going to do that."

DAVID KRAVETS, WIRED [The] accord with Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint -- which more ISPs are likely to join -- opens up a Pandora's box of chilling side effects.

Among the most important is a challenge to the long-accepted notion that ISPs are generally immune from liability for content posted by users, under the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Under the Cuomo deal, the ISPs seem to acknowledge a moral role in policing the internet. . .

Under the Cuomo plan, the ISPs would filter child porn on Usenet newsgroups via hash-marking technology, in which the same photos can be traced and blocked. But the three ISPs are voluntarily going much farther than that, largely curbing or derailing access to Usenet, a three-decade-old system designed to swap information electronically.

The ISPs have also agreed to purge their servers of web sites that are deemed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to carry child pornography. Child porn, quite properly, enjoys no First Amendment protection. But once this mechanism is in place, the companies will be sorely tempted to apply it to other types of content.

"Others are now likely to get in line asking to [filter] different material," said Wendy Seltzer, an online scholar at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.


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