The Governor and the Internet
Written by Dane Jasper
June 20, 2008 | 5 min read
As reported by CNet today, California’s governor and Attorney General are asking California Internet service providers to help stop the illegal dissemination of child pornography.
The Governor and the Attorney General’s letter was sent to the California ISP Association (CISPA), the largest of a dwindling number of trade groups for Internet service providers. Sonic.net has been a member of CISPA for many years, and I’ve found it to be a wonderful peer group. Until recently, I served as President of CISPA, but I gave up the position recently after serving for a number of years. Please note that I am not writing as an official CISPA response, simply as an involved member.
In the letter (PDF), the Governor asks CISPA members to assume a leadership role in curbing distribution of child pornography.
In fact, for the last decade, all ISPs have been required by law to both report child pornography if it is found, and to remove it promptly if it is reported to us. We have been leaders at the front line of this fight for a long time, alongside and in cooperation with law enforcement..
The Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998 (Sexual Predators Act) requires that an ISP notify a designated law enforcement agency after learning that a website containing child pornography exists on its server. If the ISP willfully fails to report the website, the ISP can be fined. Generally, ISPs cooperate with law enforcement agencies and, upon notification, remove sites that include child pornography.
You can view the act at the Library of Congress and view the bill itself in PDF form at the Government Printing Office.
I applaud the efforts of law enforcement investigators in the many agencies involved and the staff of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) for the work they have done for more than a decade in an effort to eliminate this illegal content from the Internet. (If you encounter illegal content, you can report it at the link above, or by phone to NCMEC at 1-800-843-5678.)
The letter asks CISPA to work with it’s members to “remove child pornography from existing servers and blocking channels, which include newsgroups, used for distributing this material.”
ISPs have a responsibility to remove bad content when it is found, and we will of course continue to do that. It’s the law, and it’s the right thing to do.
Regarding “blocking channels, which include newsgroups”, I think that there is some confusion and misinformation.
Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable have all agreed to eliminate some or all Usenet newsgroups. The Usenet (Wikipedia) is a collection of discussion groups, about 100,000 in all. Millions of postings are made daily, in groups as diverse as soc.politics to rec.bicycling to sci.math. Also included are groups such as alt.adoption, alt.atheism, alt.gothic, and alt.tv.simpsons.
The root of the problem is that Verizon, Sprint and Time Warner Cable did NOT comply with the law. From the NY Times:
The agreements resulted from an eight-month investigation and sting operation in which undercover agents from Mr. Cuomo’s office, posing as subscribers, complained to Internet providers that they were allowing child pornography to proliferate online, despite customer service agreements that discouraged such activity. Verizon, for example, warns its users that they risk losing their service if they transmit or disseminate sexually exploitative images of children.
After the companies ignored the investigators’ complaints, the attorney general’s office surfaced, threatening charges of fraud and deceptive business practices. The companies agreed to cooperate and began weeks of negotiations.
These service providers failed to respond as the law requires to reports of illegal content which was posted, reportedly in one of 88 Usenet newsgroups which law enforcement found illegal content in.
Now, as a result of their failure to adhere to the law, they have settled with NY’s attorney general by agreeing to drop some or all of the Usenet. In Sprint’s case, they’re dropping the more than 18,000 alt.* groups (the largest section in volume by far), along with many other sections of the Usenet. Time Warner is just going to drop the Usenet entirely – all 100,000 groups.
There’s a bit of a sub-plot here. Offering Usenet access is something that every ISP used to include with the service, but more and more have moved away from it as the web has become a more dominant use for Internet access. “The Usenet” isn’t a site, it’s a service, provided by ISPs, and it costs ISPs a lot of money to keep it running. And, they can shut it down for their users. It has been reported that just a small minority of typical ISP end-users know about Usenet or participate in the groups, so no one will notice, right?
Sprint, Verizon and Time Warner are playing Br’er Rabbit here. Br’er is a classic trickster, saying “Oh, no, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!” in order to escape his foes. In this case, these provider’s briar patch is simply an escape from the costs and overhead of offering Usenet discussion groups, plus reduction in fines applicable due to their failure to act as the law requires. As a bonus, they also get some great press for slaying this paper tiger!
And as for Sprint and Verizon, who will still continue to carry some groups – the bad guys will simply start posting illegal content to a different newsgroup. I can’t imagine that “on topic” posting and obedience to a newsgroup’s charter is these people’s top priority. Do common thugs comply with our wishes for how they’d behave? Instead, they’ll tuck it away in obscure places like rec.crafts.rubberstamps. (If your ISP still provides Usenet, click for news://rec.crafts.rubberstamps/ or instead, use the Google Groups gateway)
I certainly welcome further input on this issue from the Governor’s office and the Attorney General. We are all trying to accomplish the same thing.
That said, I don’t think eliminating 88, or 18,000, or 100,000 Usenet discussion groups is going to be productive in addressing the real issue. The problem will just move to another part of the Usenet, or another part of the Internet.
The real answer is continued close and rapid collaboration between law enforcement and Internet service providers in order to track down the producers and consumers of this illegal material.