The service is the brainchild of computer consultant Karl Denninger, who said he wants to help avoid a repeat of the recent New York raid on ISP news servers in connection with a child pornography sting.
Denninger's service, tentatively dubbed Clean News, is designed to strip the vast majority of binary posts--most often graphic images or software--out of ISPs' Usenet news feeds. Only posts traceable to a specific person would be allowed, an innovation Denninger says would take a huge bite out of illegal material on Usenet and reduce ISPs' exposure to criminal liability.
"This would put a significant dent in the copyright problem, probably would shut down kiddie porn entirely, and probably would cut down about 75 percent of the binaries in the news feed," Denninger said.
Once the service is up and running, it would require anybody wanting to post a binary file to the Clean News feed to register with a central identify-verification organization. This body would issue Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) keys traceable back to the user, which would be used as a kind of license to post through Clean News.
Porn easily weeded out
The Clean News servers would be maintained separately from the verification agency. Whenever the news feed found a binary posting in any newsgroup that did not have a PGP key registered to the poster, Clean News would issue a cancel order for the post. ISPs that subscribe to the service would receive the cancel order--similar to the messages spam-fighters use to cancel spam online--and strip the binary from their news streams.
If any of the PGP-licensed posts turned out to carry illegal material, Denninger said, law enforcement agencies easily would be able to subpoena the poster's real identity from the identity verification bureau. Denninger said he has not yet found an agency to act as this bureau, although he says it likely would be something similar to Verisign, which verifies digital certificates.
"What we're going to do is put some accountability in the process," he said. Several regional ISPs, as well as one national ISP, already have signed up to receive the Clean News feed once it kicks off, he added.
ISPs avoid liability?
The service's creator thinks Clean News will help ISPs avoid liability for the mass of illegal material that flows through Usenet feeds, a controversial legal topic in itself.
Pieces of the Communications Decency Act shelter ISPs from liability for libel, slander, and other civil actions based on material flowing through their servers. But the act does not extend to criminal penalties.
Denninger argued that the names of newsgroups--such as alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.teen or alt.binaries.warez--are enough to let system administrators know that posters are likely passing illegal material. This opens them up for potential criminal prosecution, he said.
"The idea that you're not aware of what's happening is just nonsense," Denninger said. "If you take this [Clean News] feed as an ISP, you'll have a strong presumption with the law enforcement community that you're doing the right thing."
Some legal observers argue, however, that newsgroup names alone are not enough to make ISPs liable. "I don't accept that argument," said David Sobel, general counsel of the Washington D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I don't believe that, just by virtue of these descriptions, an ISP is put on notice that there is legally defined child pornography in that newsgroup."
Denninger's idea already has sparked considerable controversy on mailing lists dedicated to ISP issues. Critics say it would be an invasion of a poster's privacy, would create a huge unwanted volume of cancel messages for non-subscribers, and would be not be successful in weeding out all the illegal binaries.
"Politically it's kind of like filtering for Web sites," said Patrick Greenwell, chief technical officer for NameSecure, a Moraga, California-based Internet services company. Some ISPs certainly would sign up for the service, Greenwell predicted, adding, "but everyone else who doesn't want it would run very quickly in the opposite direction."
ISPs that do sign up likely would lose customers who don't want their news feeds censored, diminishing demand for the service, Greenwell said.
The idea also would set a bad precedent for tracking of individuals' Net use, Sobel said.
"I think it's a privacy nightmare," Sobel said. "It's a direct assault on anonymity. If suddenly everything people do online is documented in a way that is easily traceable back to them, that will fundamentally change the way people behave on the Internet."
But Denninger, who plans to take the service out of the testing stage early next year, says that's the whole idea. He wants to see an end to child pornography, pirated copies of software, and other illegal material flowing through Usenet.
"People say I'm a Net Nazi, trying to get rid of binaries," he said. "If you want to go and post pictures of your girlfriend on the Net, be my guest. But comply with the law."