ISPs to Board Up Big Chunk of Usenet in Child Porn Crusade

Two more Internet service providers (ISPs) have joined New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s crusade to block access to online child pornography at a key distribution source.

AOL and AT&T have joined ISPs Verizon, Sprint Nextel and Time Warner Cable in this agreement, in which they cut off server access to Web sites that contain child porn and — perhaps more controversially — access to large swaths of Usenet that may have nothing to do with the subject.

Cuomo announced the first agreement with the three providers in June. The ISPs will use a list provided by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children as they monitor traffic for this material.

Undercover Investigation

Together with this announcement, Cuomo’s office also unveiled a new Web site devoted to the AG’s campaign against online child pornographers.

Cuomo launched this initiative after an undercover investigation that uncovered 88 different newsgroups containing a total of 11,390 lewd photos featuring prepubescent children — and in some cases, photos of children being raped and sexual activity involving animals — the AG’s office said. As part of the investigation, Cuomo’s office developed a new system for identifying online content that contains child pornography by using the unique hash value associated with every image.

Once that data is identified and collected, it can be used to digitally match the same image anywhere else it is distributed. After building a library of such hash values, investigators were able to filter through tens of thousands of online files at a time, and thus identifying which ISPs were the main conduits.

Child protection advocates are delighted with the initiative, even though many acknowledge that this plan is a limited weapon in the fight against child porn.

However, with 88 servers taken out of commission, a lot of child porn is no longer in circulation, Kevin McDonald, chairman of government affairs at Web Wise Kids, told the E-Commerce Times. Web Wise Kids is a national organization committed to teaching kids about online safety.

Hamstringing Usenet

Others point to the collateral damage of the agreement — namely the blockage of the Usenet system. Indeed, some of the providers are wielding an indiscriminate ax at the problem, with AT&T reportedly planning to block access to the entire alt.binaries hierarchy.

“I’ll be the black sheep to say this is a bad, bad decision,” Anthony Citrano, a consultant and chief blogger at cosmictap.com, told the E-Commerce Times. “AOL and AT&T are blocking massive parts of the Usenet hierarchy. Time Warner is now blocking Usenet entirely. This is absurd, it’s lazy, it’s paranoid and it’s ineffective.

“I have been using Usenet since the ’80s, and it’s a real shame to see it killed like this because of a few bad guys,” he added.

Political Grandstanding?

A sizable contingent in the child protection community that sees this initiative as little more than political grandstanding, McDonald acknowledged. “Cuomo went so far as to compare it with shutting down drug suppliers,” Citrano said. “A more honest metaphor would be shutting down a school because someone sold crack in the parking lot.”

The move comes with its share of controversy, McDonald said — as do most initiatives to fight child porn. Unfortunately, he said, the reality is that fighting child porn usually requires a compromise between freedom of expression and safety. “No one wants to see child porn available, and no one likes to see government overreach,” he said.

Some innocent user groups will no doubt be left in the dark, McDonald agreed. “Fifteen years ago, I would have not been happy with that, as at that time those groups would have had a difficult time relocating. Now, though, it is a short-term inconvenience until the groups are able to find some other place to convene.”

That is cold comfort to Usenet fans. “Like most such things, it makes life hard for the honest and good folks, and the bad guys have already found a way around it,” Citrano said. “It’ll do nothing to reduce child porn and may very well kill Usenet. It’s really a shame.”

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