The Internet service provider pulled a handful of newsgroups it said were related to sharing files or pictures. Newsgroups are bulletin board-like services linked to an ISP that contain messages on specific topics.
"We have closed some newsgroups that raise two sorts of concerns: One set could be fostering the sharing of copyrighted material; another set raises concerns about sharing child pornography," said John Sullivan, associate general counsel for Excite@Home.
The move is an increasingly popular decision for ISPs, which are on the hook for subscriber activities when it comes to copyrighted material that is illegally swapped through their services.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law that governs copyrights online, gives ISPs some protection from subscriber behavior. It requires copyright owners to give a service provider notice of alleged illegal activity by a customer. The ISP must investigate the activity and either remove the material or face potential legal problems.
"When ISPs get a notice that the statute requires that someone is violating copyright, then they have a choice: They go on, or they can take the material down," said Peter Paszi, a professor at American University Law School. "If they go ahead, then they expose themselves to possible liability as the knowing host of an infringing activity."
Excite@Home said that removing the groups was a "pre-emptive" move because the company had been asked to pull similar material in the past. In the last year, the company eradicated several newsgroups, many related to adult material, for copyright violations.
One newsgroup removed this week was "alt.binaries.penthouse," which largely dealt with sharing photos from adult magazine Penthouse. Many of the others were related to sharing movie files or adult entertainment.
Other ISPs avoid hosting newsgroups or don't carry "alt.binary" groups because of potential copyright issues.
Libertarians, however, caution that removing material from newsgroups could create a precedent for liability, which could backfire on service providers that don't comply with takedown requests. For example, in a recent case in Buffalo, N.Y., authorities seized servers owned by a local ISP because material on hosted newsgroups contained child pornography.
"It creates a dangerous precedent when you permit that kind of interference with online content on the part of parties or governments around the world," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "You simply can't apply local standards to a global medium, (and) that certainly applies in the case of newsgroups."