N.Y. AG says AOL will curb access to Usenet. It already did

Andrew Cuomo says the Time Warner unit will delete child porn when notified (it already does) and remove sexually explicit Usenet newsgroups (AOL stopped offering Usenet in 2005).

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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It's no secret that politicians tend to churn out press releases touting their accomplishments, no matter how mean or insignificant. But it is still possible to be surprised on occasion, which brings us to today's announcement by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

In his press release, which was reproduced uncritically, Cuomo claimed that AOL has "agreed to eliminate access to child porn newsgroups, a major supplier of these illegal images" and said that the company will "purge" its "servers of child porn websites." By newsgroups, Cuomo is referring to Usenet, a free-flowing discussion area that predates the Web.

The press release included the obligatory encomiums from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Ernie Allen, who added: "This is another tremendous step forward in ridding the Internet of child pornography. Attorney General Cuomo continues to lead the fight against child pornography and I applaud his efforts to cut this horrific material off at the source."

There's just one problem with the press release. AOL isn't doing anything different today than it did yesterday. "We have not changed any policies or procedures as part of today's announcement," AOL spokeswoman Allie Burns told me via e-mail.

Someone on the New York attorney general's staff probably should have informed his or her boss that AOL actually ceased to offer all Usenet newsgroups more than three years ago--for business reasons, not political reasons. Even in the bizzaro world of politics, an Internet provider can't very well cease to offer what it already has ceased to offer. (AOL will continue to allow its customers to access third-party Usenet providers such as Giganews, and Usenet.com.)

Nor is AOL doing anything different in terms of deleting illegal images on its servers. "We've had an agreement in place with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children since January 2007 to purge any known URLs and IP addresses that are identified by NCMEC as carrying child pornography," AOL's Burns said.

To be sure, Cuomo's press release also talked about AT&T changing its policies, and it was at least accurate in that respect.

AT&T spokesman Marty Richter told me that the company is going to cease offering the alt.binaries.* hierarchy, which include sex-themed newsgroups but also ones such as alt.binaries.pictures.aviation, alt.binaries.drwho.pictures, and alt.binaries.pictures.vehicles. Customers will continue to be able to access third-party Usenet providers.

AT&T's existing policy has been to investigate all complaints of child porn hosted on its servers--and promptly remove any illegal images--within three business days. That will not change. On Thursday, AT&T said it will enter into an agreement with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to consult the group's lists in addition to complaints received from other sources.

All of this might be normal political posturing, except that it points to a troubling trend. Cuomo, like his predecessor Eliot Spitzer, seems to be trying to legislate through threats of selective prosecution or public embarrassment.

That's what happened last month when Cuomo announced that Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint would curb Usenet (here's exactly what Verizon is doing). It happened today with AOL and AT&T. It's true that child sexual abuse is a horrific crime--but it's also true that, last we checked, setting rules and policies for companies to follow is a job for a duly elected legislature, not the police.