By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Three of the nation's major Internet service providers have agreed to block customer access to newsgroups and Web sites that offer child pornography, according to an agreement announced yesterday by the New York attorney general's office.
The agreements, which were hailed by child-welfare advocates as a significant step, push the service providers to take a more active role in monitoring what takes place over their lines.
But by forcing providers to act as censors, the agreements may also violate the First Amendment, free-speech advocates said.
Under the deals with Sprint Nextel, Verizon Communications and Time Warner Cable, which are expected to hold nationwide, the companies agreed to shut off access to newsgroups believed to traffic in child pornography and to remove from their servers any Web sites offering such images.
The targeted sites will be based on a list compiled by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
"When it comes to child pornography, there is no excuse this office will tolerate," Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said during a news conference to announce the agreements.
Other Internet service providers are part of the office's investigation, too, and negotiations with them are ongoing, officials said.
A spokesman for Comcast, one of the leading service providers in the Washington region, said the company had not been contacted by the attorney general's office.
"We look forward to learning more about the agreement and how it will be implemented," spokesman Charlie Douglas said.
The agreements arise from an eight-month child pornography probe in which the New York investigators discovered illicit pictures on the Internet and then, posing as customers, filed complaints with the service providers involved. Internet providers are supposed to review each complaint and then, if warranted, pass the information to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
But at least some of those complaints were not readily acted upon, officials said.
In the long-standing effort to hinder the transmission of child pornography over the Internet, the decision to focus on service providers, rather than on the recipients of the images, is a relatively new and somewhat controversial tactic.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said that his group had developed a list of child-porn Web sites but that only a few of the major Internet companies had agreed to use the list to take them down.
"It has been a slow process to get companies to take this list and take these Web sites off their systems," he said. "AOL is doing it; Verizon is doing it. But the numbers are still relatively small."
The list, he said, comprises only the "most egregious" types of child pornography, especially those involving young children.
The agreement will force the service providers involved to enforce the list.
But John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that the notion of a government agency forcing a service provider to block content -- especially without court oversight -- raises questions of censorship.
"No matter how bad this content is, efforts to regulate or stop this content still have to comply with our Constitution," he said.
He said that in the past when service providers have tried to block offensive Web sites, they have erred and blocked many innocent ones, as well. In one Pennsylvania case, he said, an attempt to block 400 illicit sites actually extended to more than 1 million unrelated sites.
Besides, he said, many child pornographers are too savvy to be stopped by merely blocking sites.
"The people who want child pornography already use proxy servers to disguise their identity from law enforcement," he said. "That is going to evade any blocking they do."
The New York probe also turned up the popularity of newsgroups, essentially electronic bulletin boards on the Internet, among pedophiles.
The investigation found 88 newsgroups involving 11,390 sexual photos featuring prepubescent children. Among them were photos of children being raped and sexual activity involving animals, according to the attorney general's office.
"As part of the agreements, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint will for the first time completely block access to all child porn Newsgroups," said a statement from the attorney general's office.
The office also developed a system for identifying online content that contains child pornography. Every online picture has a unique numerical fingerprint that, once identified and collected, can be used to match the image anywhere else it is distributed. The database allowed investigators to filter through tens of thousands of online files at a time and determine which providers were giving access to child-pornography images.
As part of the agreements with Cuomo, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint will implement a new system to rapidly respond to user complaints about child pornography.
The three companies will also collectively pay $1.125 million to fund additional efforts by the attorney general's office and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to remove child pornography from the Internet.
Child pornography, like many illegal Web offerings, is difficult to prosecute because the criminals can operate virtually anywhere. Even if they are detected, they can easily shut down and restart business under a different Web site name.
But Cuomo said his strategy of focusing on the supply side of the crime, while difficult, was better than simply identifying and prosecuting the users of child pornography.
"If you're just going to prosecute the users of the material, you can be doing that all day, every day for the rest of your life," Cuomo said. To turn off the supply, he said "you have to get to the faucet."